Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Distortion of ranges in Grand Tactical wargame rules

Swedes with muskets circa 1660
(The original version of this article failed to acknowledge my debt to Chris Pringle's Bloody Big Battles! and added insult to injury by inadvertently - and inexplicably - misrepresenting BBB itself. I have therefore eaten humble pie and amended it. doctorphalanx, 16 March 2020.)

Tilly's Very Bad Day doesn't have a declared ground scale. Some may notice, however, that Horse have a Shooting Range of 2TUM and Pike+shot of 4TUM. As a TUM is half a base width and as bases represent brigades, it means that Horse can fire a distance equivalent to the frontage occupied by a Brigade and that Pike+shot units can fire a distance equivalent to the frontages of two brigades.

In correspondence TVBD author, Steven Thomas, explained: "Inside the game, there are several related mechanisms that interact. The key ones are shooting distance, normal movement, charge movement. The relationships between these are complex. We play tested a bunch of options."

The large ranges are, therefore, a compromise and a result of trial-and-error tests made during the development of the game mechanics. They can, to some extent, be justified on the grounds that a brigade base is not a solid body of men but rather 'an operational centre of gravity'. The actual units that it represents may be rattling around within its perimeter or spilling over its edges to approach enemy brigades doing the same thing. They may indeed come a lot closer to shoot at one another than appearances suggest, in which case the 2 TUM may to some extent reflect their reach as much as their range. This concept is inspired by Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles! See his comment below for a full explanation.

(Cf Horse, Foot and Guns in which musket-equipped troops have ranges varying from 200 to 400 paces, the higher range representing an invisible skirmish screen notionally thrown out in advance of the visible parent unit.)

It would be a mistake, however, to push this rationalisation too far. At the end of the day we have to recognise that hobby wargames are games, not simulations, and we are kidding ourselves if we think any of them are ‘realistic’. They reference realism in the same way a novel might, but they are not real: they are games of chance with a military flavour.

And if you do try to create rules that are trudgingly ‘realistic’ you may also find that the small increments and lack of dynamism lead to a game-play that is arthritic.

Rather than simply leave things there, however, I thought it would be interesting to look at ground scales and ranges in other rules with which I am acquainted. The results are a mixed bag and I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw. Some hit the mark or make a reasonable attempt at realistic ranges, others certainly do not.

I’ve played most of these games with a range of other players and none of them have ever questioned the ground-scale or ranges. Nobody, of course, is going to question the length of a ‘normal move’ because it’s part and parcel of the game and we don’t specifically know what it represents, but if you are looking for holes in a game because you are looking for holes in a game, ranges are an easy target!

Altar of Freedom

I haven't played these rules yet but I'm very impressed by their approach. The ground scale is 1" = 150 yds. The bases are 60mm x 30mm and represent  brigades.

There is ranged fire and close combat. However, the ranged fire represents only skirmish fire and the close combat principally represents point blank shooting. The skirmishing fire range is 2" inches so 300 yds, and may include the distance of the skirmishers from their parent unit as well as the range of their weapons.

This approach exactly captures the unique nature of battle during the American Civil War but I don’t think it’s applicable to other times and places.

It may also be noted that although  the firing aspect and the close combat aspect may be defined differently from other rules, game play still includes these two aspects. As such, AoF is not radically different from other rule sets.

Bloody Big Battles!

Ground scale: 1 inch = 150-250 yards/metres. Smoothbore musket range  is 3 inches which equals 450-750 yards/metres. (The Dreyse Needle Gun is given a range of 6” and the Chassepot 12”.)

BBB author, Chris Pringle, explains this approach in his comment below, a reaction to the original and misleading text in this section.

I accept Chris’s concept but have some reservations about the ratios between the respective ranges, a subject I might return to another time. As with TVBD, the outcomes at the macro level are, in my opinion, more important than strict simulation at the micro level.

Horse, Foot and Guns

Musket range is 200 paces if 'Musketeers' and 400p if certain other types, representing the reach of skirmishers. A pace is 30" so that means 166 yds and 332 yds respectively.

Impetus (first edition)

1U = 6-7 m. Unfortunately the U is sort of tied to the scale of figures used rather than the size of the bases. However, if you have 6-15mm figures on the suggested 8cm-wide bases, 1U is 1cm and your 8 cm base frontage will represent say 6.5 m x 8 = 52 m (about 57 yds).

Interestingly a heavy Infantry unit in Impetus represents 600-1200 men, roughly equal to a cohort or double cohort. Assuming that each cohort is eight lines deep, and that each legionary has a 1-yard frontage, one 480-man cohort would have a frontage of 60 yards (100 yards for the oversized first cohort). This from here. All of which goes to show that an Impetus HI unit is a fair match for a Roman cohort. Now on to ranges.

Ranges in Impetus typically go out 30U, about 195 m or 213 yards which seems long but not absurd.

The new, second, edition of Impetus uses measurement related to BW, a much more rational and increasingly universal approach for pre-Twentieth Century warfare.


No ground scale. Musket range is 4BW, equivalent to a unit’s frontage. If the unit is a battalion in two ranks it might have a frontage of 500/2 x 2’ which would be 500 feet or about 167 yds. However, Maurice uses bath-tubbing with no alteration to range so a unit could just as easily represent a brigade.

At battalion-level (my preference) Maurice is not a grand-tactical game. At brigade-level it is, but the numbers go out of the window.

Above all it is a game, and a very good one, not a pretence at simulation. It gets by because it splendidly captures an Eighteenth Century look and feel. And IMO that's more important than claiming some notional representation of accuracy in a small arms table.

Rules of Battle 

Forgotten now, perhaps, but apart from DBA and HOTT I think Neil Graber's Rules of Battle was the best implementation of the DBX-style design ever achieved.

The ground scale is 1" = 500 ft. Each 40 mm by 20 mm Foot base represents 1000 men (and a frontage of 267 yds).

Apart from artillery there is no ranged shooting. All combat is point blank, i.e. base to base contact.

Of the rules reviewed here, Rules of Battle is the only one not to have ranged infantry fire.

Twilight of Divine Right 

1BW = 150 m. Foot and dismounted dragoons have a range of 1/2BW = 75m. Ranged pistol fire at 1/4 BW is used and it is potentially a very small measurement. ToDR units consist of two bases so the ¼ BW measurement is actually only 1/8 of a unit’s frontage. This drives the need for bases (and a table) that are relatively large. In comparison with TVBD this set has realistic ranges but I find the small size problematical.

Irregular Wars

Irregular Wars is a much lower level game than the ones above, but I’ve included it for comparison. Bases represent companies of 125 men. It has a ground scale of 1U = 30 yds, and long range for most weapons is 6U or 180 yds. I suspect that the smaller the scale represented, the easier it is to avoid distortion without crippling a game.


  1. Hi Doc, thanks for a very interesting post on a question that I think is fairly central to designing good rules. Why do I think this is central? Well I know it's now a few weeks since you posted so I hope you don't mind if I chip in with a few observations of my own.

    I think we all tend to want to overstate small arms range because we can't quite accept the look and feel of a game in which the separation between units engaged in distant combat is only a small fraction of the base width, i.e. just out of contact, and we carry this prejudice over even into games where the representational scale is unit = (roughly) brigade.

    Why that is I'm not sure. Maybe it's because most of us have either come out of the 'old school' toy soldier approach, which didn't worry too much about this 'representational scale' stuff, or from a GW background, which is inherently skirmish oriented, so that distant combat takes place at extended ranges on the tabletop. But it does bug me. Maybe because, when I've gone to the trouble of getting the dust under the toenails of the figures just the right colour for Thermopylae, I find it difficult to let go of inaccuracies in other aspects of the game. I'm a geek, I admit it.

    Seriously though, smalls arms range more or less sets the ground scale for the game and hence unit frontages and depths (but see my note at the end). And there's a tricky interplay between small arms ranges particularly (but also artillery ranges), movement rate and the effectiveness of distant combat that strongly influences the balance of play and is quite difficult to get right. This is the case regardless of the scale chosen but is much more apparent if small arms range in the game is significantly overscale by comparison with other distances in the game.

    All your examples of this are illuminating in this respect but I'd like to illustrate the point by commenting on two rulesets that I know something about.

    ... contd

  2. First, HFG, which I play pretty regularly. HFG is a good example of how to get the balance right within the constraints of well defined ground and representational scales. Musketry is slightly overstated (200 paces) but still ony a fraction (1/2) of unit frontage (400 paces), which looks right on the table. Troops such as French line infantry project firepower beyond normal effective range because they are deemed to have a skirmish screen deployed ahead of the brigade. Moreoever the writer, Phil Barker, incorporates some very clever but quite unobtrusive mechanisms for simulating the interplay between firing ranges and movement rate. The result is that infantry and cavalry trying to close with defending infantry are subject to sufficient rounds of ranged combat to reflect the effectiveness of defensive fire. It works particularly cleverly for the later part of the period covered by the rules, modelling the increased effectiveness of rifled small arms against cavalry (particularly) very effectively. I think DBA contrives to hit the same balance for archery, in a simiar way.

    Secondly and briefly, ToDR, which I have also played though not so much. Although I have levelled some criticisms at ToDR for poor proof reading and clarity of layout and drafting, there is still much to applaud in terms of design (with many good ideas being inherited from its progenitor, Twilight of the Sun King).

    In the context of the this post, I do think that ToDR also achieves a good balance within the constraints of its defined ground and representational scales. In particular, the fact that distant combat takes place at ranges that are relatively small fractions of base width actually improves the look of the game. Lines look 'engaged', whether they are in distant combat of close combat. Moreover, small arms fire cannot be brought to bear to interdict enemy movement at unreasonable distances. If I had any criticism of the way firing is implemented it would be that the rules differentiate between too many ranges unnecessarily, given how short even musket range is.

    I've been following Steven Thomas' development of TVBD with great interest. After reading the rules I'm really looking forward to trying them out, especially as I'm still not sure that I want to persevere with ToDR, given the number of errata and inconsistencies that I'll need to resolve if I'm to do so. Mostly the TVBD rules read very well but I'm not at all sure about the apparent distortion in the range of distant combat. (I must apologise to Steven at this point. I haven't yet put this feedback to him directly and I know that he is always open to dialogue. I aim to give some considered feedback when I've had the chance to try the rules. Especially as it may turn out that my doubts are unfounded.)

    I know that it's possible to to get a really enjoyable game even with significant distortions of scale in respect of distant combat ranges. Commands & Colors Napoleonics is a very good example. Artillery range seems ridiculously short and musketry ridiculously long when compared with the apparent ground scale and representational scales but the game is brilliant.

    Lastly, I was very interested to read your comments about Rules of Battle. You've praised this ruleset before and I've been trying to find a copy but it looks like they may be out of print. Do you know if that's the case?

    Thanks for a great blog. It's a good read and I return to it pretty frequently. All the best, Chris Helm

    Note: I'm happier to fudge depths simply because there's no choice for any game above the level of single figure skirmish, given the size of the figures. Depths are always going to be way overscale.

  3. Hi Chris

    Thanks for your observations which are very much appreciated. Readers are welcome to respond to posts, however old they may be.

    I was playing C&C Ancients recently in which pila are given a range of 2 hexes in comparison to bows which have a range of 3 hexes. Personally I probably wouldn't have made the pilum a ranged weapon, but given that decision its range can't be any shorter because a 1 hex range (i.e. adjacent hex) is close combat distance with no ranged shooting allowed.

    Here we have a clear example where game mechanics distort range. Does it matter? I think not. The important thing is that pila are thrown at some point before contact, not the precise physical distance. Wargames are abstracted. This is just another abstraction.

    Steven originally began with shorter ranges but was driven to extend them by a complex interplay of game mechanics, and I think that is a different situation from setting out with unrealistic ranges.

    TVBD is still in development and is getting a lot of scrutiny. Try it now and give Steven your comments... That way we can all help to avoid the errata which dog some other rule sets!

    I'm in contact with the author of Rules of Battle and have made enquiries.

    Lastly, thanks for your comments about the blog.


  4. Chris

    Please email me (doctorphalanx at gmail.com) re Rules of Battle.


  5. Hi Richard,

    As the author of 'Bloody Big BATTLES!', I'd like to respond to your remark about BBB that you 'don't think that a smoothbore musket range of up to 750 yards/metres withstands scrutiny.' If you'd scrutinised the rulebook, you'd have seen it says this:

    'These ranges are significantly further than the distances the individual weapons could fire historically. The reason for this is that the troops of a unit actually cover a much larger area than the few square inches of its base. The bases merely represent the ‘centre of gravity’ of a unit, and the fire factors reflect a ‘zone of control’. Some of a unit’s component subunits – infantry battalions, cavalry regiments – will in reality be posted 100s of yards ahead as advance guards or outposts, others may be 100s of yards behind as reserve. Those subunits in turn will have thrown out companies or squadrons of skirmishers and scouts 100s of yards ahead again, flank guards, and their own supports and reserves. Thus when two divisions engage at a range of 12”, perhaps 3,000 yards on the ground, with rifles whose effective range was only 1,200 yards, this represents the fact that each of the opposing units’ forward skirmisher screens is up to 1,000 yards ahead of the main body. As units close, they thicken their firing lines and the fire gets more intense, hence the higher fire factors at shorter ranges. Likewise, the 24 or 36 guns an artillery base represents are not necessarily all in a single gun line; instead, individual batteries may be spread around the division or corps area.'

    Hope this clarifies and justifies.


  6. Oops, forgot to include my signature links!

    1. Hi Chris

      Thanks for raising this.

      What I wrote in my third paragraph was directly inspired by the concept in BBB! which you explain and I should have acknowledged that. What I then wrote in the BBB section was totally inappropriate. I'm at a loss to explain how this happened and I owe you a double apology.



  7. Hi Richard,

    Apology accepted, of course! Easily done when surveying a large group of different rulesets, I'm sure. No worries!