Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wargame Design: The Futility of "Realistic" Weapon Ranges

A common complaint I read or hear is that a weapon’s range is not “realistic” in a game.  I myself have felt the same way about some games.  For example, I find the ranges in Bolt Action to be most off putting.  If you read my reviews of A World Aflame or On The Seven Seas I call out weapon ranges as a big dissatisfier as well.  When a man can run almost as far as a pistol can shoot with a single action, it makes me wonder why I would ever stop to shoot with my pistol.  On the other hand, a gun that can fire all the way across the board with no limit can be equally unappealing.  

Melee weapons are easy.  For them to work, you have to be very close, typically base-to-base or some other very close proximity.  That is relatively easy to design for.  Ranged weapons are not as easy.  As a designer, ranged weapons can be a real thorn.  The closer you get to modern weapons the harder it is to get the ranges to be “realistic”. 

What is a “realistic” weapon range anyway?
Great question. 

We have all seen example in wargames that are not “realistic”.  Let’s use an infamous Bolt Action example.  A standard rifle can fire 24 inches in the game.  It is the standard weapon for most infantry units.  Warlord Games makes an awesome Pegasus Bridge kit for Operation: Market Garden.  The problem is that the standard rifle can not fire the span of the bridge which is decidedly not true in real life.  I have seen A Bridge Too Far! Plus, most of us are familiar with the range of a rifle and the width of a river, even a big one and find this unsatisfying.  Clearly, the range of a rifle in Bolt Action is not “realistic”.

Now, let’s go to the other extreme.  I have played some micro-armor games with weapons that have a range measured in thousands of yards.  The only real limitation on the range is if the target can be identified and targeted.  No matter where the enemy goes on the table, they will be in range.  This can be “realistic” but it is also not very fun when all you can do is pray you are not detected.  It makes maneuver on the tabletop useless and the best path forward is always the quickest route.         
Many players will tell you that a realistic weapon range is one that matches the ground scale of the game to that of the weapons.  So, if a millimeter equals 1 yard then a weapon that can fire 300 yards accurately (maybe a musket) should be able to fire 300 millimeters.  That is then a “realistic” weapon  range.  Now, imagine trying to apply this standard to a Micro-armor game.  You would need a baseball field to play with 6mm models for Desert Storm/Team Yankee type games.     

It’s A Trap!        
For a game designer, “Realistic” weapon ranges are a trap.  They can not be achieved within the following constraints:

1.       Time Scale
2.       Ground Scale
3.       Fun Scale

Time Scale: Units would need to move unnaturally or unrealisticall fast in order to close distances in modern games.  In essence, they would simply be shooting duels where the main challenge would be creating firing formulas and detection mechanics.  This can sometimes be a dig on modern Naval Wargaming. 

Ground Scale: Most people simply do not have big enough tables or able to manipulate small enough models to make a “realistic” weapon range work.  Of course, the old U.S. Naval War College can make an exception when they are gaming on gymnasium floors.  The rest of us can not typically make that space commitment. 

Fun Scale: “Realistic” weapon ranges for modern weapons simply are not that much fun!  It limits the possibility of maneuver UNLESS the game has strong stealth mechanics.  I once toyed with a game that had unlimited ranges, future tech detection gear, and weapons that were powerful enough to punch through most cover.  The game sucked as it devolved into a simple game of dice throwing because there were not enough variables to make tactical and compelling game play.  “Realistic” ranges limit tactical flexibility unless the game design compensates for it somehow.

What Is The Answer Then Smart Guy?
Sadly, there is no one answer to “realistic” weapon ranges.  The true question is:

“What are you trying to achieve with your game?” 

In my mind there are two things to consider:

1.       Firepower vs. Maneuver

In my mind, range and movement work closely together.  Weapon ranges are a way to limit the maneuver possibilities of the opponent.  As a designer, you need to decide at what point you want enemy firepower to be a consideration in a players movement.  Firepower, and thereby weapon ranges; are simply a factor to limit free maneuver of troops.  If units can not be fired upon they can move freely.  Once they can be fired upon they are subject to additional considerations that limit their movement options.  How soon do you want this to occur in your war game? 

2.       Range vs. Movement

The other key consideration is how far something can move in relation to how far weapons shoot.  If a man can run the range of a machine gun burst in a turn, then what is the point have setting up a machine gun fire arc.  You will never be able to use the machine gun as the enemy will just time their run to move through it immediately.  This means your Range to Movement Ratio is not in sync.  It gives too much benefit to movement.    

The Range to Movement ratio must be in balance to achieve “realism”.  However, some Fantasy and Sci-fi style games can bypass even this ratio through magic and technology.  Other games have to be grounded a bit more. 

What Should I Do?
Keep this rule of thumb in mind while designing.  The longer the weapon ranges, the more static the game will become as movement will be limited by firepower.  The shorter the weapon ranges the more maneuver will play a role in the game. 

There is a reason why 24 inch ranges on 6 foot by 4 foot boards is so popular.  It provides initial movement options without limitation by firepower.  However, as the two enemies close firepower becomes increasingly important.  Essentially, the main theatre of action will be the center two feet of a 4 foot wide board across a three foot frontage. 

In addition, 24 to 6 inches applies a “reasonable Range to Movement ratio of 4:1.  It would take 4 movement actions to reach a man standing still and shooting.  This makes crossing that ground feel suitably deadly unless you do something to stop them from shooting at you in the first place.  This desire to stop the enemy from standing still and shooting you is what leads to tactics and decisions.  Decisions equal fun. 

As we can see, Bolt Action is attempting to create an artificial balance between firepower and Maneuver.  Meanwhile, a game like On the Seven Seas has simply violated Range to Movement Ratios. 

Final Thoughts
Chasing “realistic” weapon ranges in most games is a unicorn.  The more “modern” the game, the harder it is.  Therefore, instead of trying to make “realistic” weapon ranges, focus on what you are trying to emphasize with your rules. 

To give your game the right feel, you need to balance two areas:
1.       Firepower vs. Manuever
2.       Range to Movement Ratio

If you want more maneuvers in your games than shorter ranges will help you achieve that.  If you want to emphasize firepower than longer ranges are better.  If you want more decision making you need to have a good Range to Movement Ratio.  

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