Monday, May 15, 2023

Wargame Design: The Importance of Scale


Scale is something that wargamers talk about a lot.  You hear the terms 28mm, True 28mm, Heroic 28mm, 1.72nd etc. talked about a lot.  In this sense, they are referring to the size of the models to be used in miniature wargaming.  Normally, it is used to make sure that models, terrain, and board size are all in alignment.  

Those who have been following my design ethos since the beginning know that almost all of my games are scale and model agnostic, as long as they look good together you should be able to use it.  Therefore, when I talk about scale I am not interested in measurement conventions.  Therefore, why do I have a blog post title "The Importance of Scale"?  That seems like a topic I would be completely uninterested in?  

In this case, I am using a different definition of scale.  It does not relate to the measurements on the table top.  Instead, I am using it to refer to the size of a conflict that a game designer wants to represent in their game.  I tend to break games down into the following categories when I talk about scale: 

Model vs Model 
In this game, the key interactions occur between individual models.  These might be individual ships, mecha, or people.  The individual abilities and skills of each model matters, and decisions are made on a model-by-model basis.     

Example: Warcry, Blood Bowl, Frostgrave, The Games: Blood and Spectacles, Under the Martian Yoke, Castles in the Sky 

Castles in the Sky

Unit vs Unit
In this game, the main choices are how units interact with each other.  This could be squadrons of aircraft, squadrons of ships, platoons of soldiers, or small gangs.  The fate of individual models is less important than how units work together and against each other.  Many people often refer to this as "skirmish" gaming.    

Examples: Oathmark, Lion Rampant, Restless Stars, Wars of the Republic

Restless Stars

Big Battle
This is where the focus is on commanding a large body of troops against another large body of troops.  Individual units matter less than how the unit works with its fellow units to achieve goals against the enemy.  This could be platoons/Regiments/Divisions of soldiers, Task forces of ships, or a clash between air forces.  These typically focus on one decisive battle of a larger campaign.     

Examples: Blucher, Longstreet, O Group, Restless Galaxies, Risk 


Grand Strategy
In these games, empires and countries face off against each other.  Typically, these are board games and the like rather than miniature wargames.  The operational units are entire armies and fleets.  Production and resource management are often additional key components of the game play and victory.  

Examples: Civilization, Twilight Imperium, Axis and Allies

Twilight Imperium

Why Scale Matters
Perhaps somewhat obviously, the issues a commander must worry about are very different depending on the scale of the game.  This naturally changes the focus of the game and where the player's interactions with the mechanics will occur.  The player in a Grand Strategy game may need to be concerned about how much ore a mine can produce in a month, while players in a Model vs. Model game are concerned about which direction a fighter is facing.  Having the commander in a Grand Strategy game worry about what direction a unit is facing would make little sense in the context of the games scale.  Such decisions are for local commanders and the chain of command to handle.    

It is important for a designer to know where the scale of their game is supposed to be.  This will help them make key decisions about mechanics and the level of interaction players should have.  By having the "scale" clearly outlined and defined in their design goals they can avoid edge cases, If This/Then That, or other irrelevant minutia in their game design.  They can also more accurately identify the size of the game, the number of units involved, and the friction the game will put on the players.  

6mm forces on 60 x 60mm bases

Knowledge of the game's scale also helps a designer make key decisions about where to abstract a game.  For a model vs model scale game, very in depth melee choices maybe appropriate, where army vs army scale games may only need to know that a close range engagement between forces is occurring.  The higher the scale, the higher tolerance for abstraction occurs.  Even though a Grand Strategy game maybe interested in the production of ore from a mine to create resources, it is not interested in the mining techniques used to acquire said ore in the first place.  Therefore, the outcome is more important than the process.  A simple die roll or card flip maybe sufficient to determine the outcome.       

Therefore, the scale of the miniatures to be used in a game is less important than the scale of conflict the game will represent.  It is the scale of conflict that will drive the level of decision making and potentially the nature of that decision making.  The level or scale of decision making then naturally leads a designer into areas to abstract and even how the abstraction can occur. 

What scale game is Heirs to Empire?  Unit vs Unit skirmish

Final Thoughts
Many designers will have a preference for the scale of game they prefer, just as many players will also have such a preference.  There exist certain genre conventions that go along with each scale that will lead to player expectations around the level of decision making and abstraction the game will use.  When there is a mismatch between the scale of the design and the scale of player, it can lead to a negative experience.  Therefore, it is important for the Designer to know the scale of the game they are creating so that they can properly frame up the game at the right level of decision making and have properly aligned mechanics.  


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