Miniature Ordnance Review looks at the world of miniatures wargaming with an emphasis on 15mm World War II and Flames of War.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Of Game Scale and Ground Scale - Fighting Tarawa in Flames of War

It's been a couple of weeks since Behind Enemy Lines published my Tarawa mini-campaign. That campaign lets the players re-fight the historic battle using a series of six individual games of Flames of War. However, the small scale size of the Tarawa battlefield got me thinking about another way to fight the battle which I mentioned briefly in my campaign summary - what about using the general scenarios to set up some larger "mega battles" where the actual terrain from the battlefield is used as a template?

Flames of War is generally considered to use a "sliding" and "compressed" ground scale which allows the player to field the more detailed 15mm miniatures in what is generally a company-level game. For example, in Flames of War, most battle rifles have a range of 16" on the tabletop. Using a straight 100X conversion, that gives a ground equivalent range of about 133 feet, or 45 yards. Most actual battle rifles of the period had an effective range of 200-300 yards, or 72" to 108" (6 to 9 feet, or roughly 2-3 meters) on the tabletop. Given Flames of War is most often played on a 4 foot by 6 foot (1.2m x 1.5m) table, the compromises required to fit the game on the table are fairly evident.

In the game this system works pretty well because the battlefields of World War II were generally quite large compared to "table scale," but when you start talking about the Pacific Theater, that basic assumption isn't always true. That doesn't mean that the game suffers from using a sliding scale, but it does open up different options for the player looking to explore different table arrangements.


Betio Island, where the Battle of Tarawa was largely fought, is a very small atoll.  It is roughly 3000 yards (just shy of 3000 meters) long, and its width varies from 100-200 yards at the narrow eastern end of the island to maybe 600-700 yards at the broader central and western parts of the island.  In game terms, that means even using a fixed 1/100th ground scale, the eastern end of the island is only about 1-2 yards (3 to 6 feet) wide. Because of the small size of the island, it is technically possible to play some of the battles in nearly 1:1 scale. The map below (click for larger size) shows Betio island with a few representative 4' x 6' standard gaming table outlines superimposed over the map.


As you can see, the very narrowest tip of the island is only one standard gaming table wide, in 100% (non-sliding, non-compressed) scale, though the invasion beaches stretch on for several tables. This means it is truly possible to play the Battle of Tarawa campaign in something approaching 1:1 scale on the tabletop.

As written, the Flames of War rules assume the compressed and sliding ground scale, so the question which would arise at this point is what impact (if any) trying to play the battle with a non-compressed ground scale would have on the rules of the game. I can see a few ways to approach the problem. The first is to simply decide that the rules are played as written and the 1:1 scale battlefield is there for historical accuracy and ambiance. The proportionally shorter ranges of most weapons in this case would simulate "battle range" as actually encountered on the atoll. Another option would be to allow all defending artillery to be "off board" and only fire in bombardments - though this may handicap a Japanese player with few AT assets. The most elaborate option would be to recalculate ranges using the actual range of the weapons in question - though that would mean rifles and pistols would have a far longer range in game terms. When choosing this final option, it would be key to ensure that the table is dense enough with appropriate terrain (including elevation changes) to provide realistic fields of fire.

Hopefully this post has given you a few fun ideas on how to adopt the Pacific campaign to the tabletop in Flames of War. While the small island campaigns dominate most layman's perceptions of the Pacific campaign, they are truly only one facet of the war. Look for future mini-campaigns and battles where a wider range of more traditional Flames of War battles come to the fore.