Miniature Ordnance Review looks at the world of historical and fantasy miniatures wargaming and model building. From 15mm Flames of War, to Warhammer 40K, to 1/35th scale tanks, with some potential surprises on the horizon - you'll find them here!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Of Game Scale and Ground Scale - Part II

Recently the owner of GHQ published a lengthy post on The Miniatures Page providing some company background and extolling the virtues of GHQ's 1/285th product line. Honestly they do have some nice miniatures, but I personally found the post more than a bit troublesome on many levels as it represents yet another fairly absolutist position in the ongoing discussion regarding what is the proper scale for company level tabletop gaming. What follows is an edited version of the post I made to that thread, but as this is an issue that seems to come around quite often, I thought it was worthy of a deeper look.

Before going into some of the key portions of the post, I think a little preamble is required. Discussions and debates around ground scale vs. model scale – and absolute ground scale vs. abstract ground scale in wargaming have raged for years and will continue to rage for years into the future. At the end of the day, I strongly believe what scale a player chooses really comes down to a matter of personal preference. That personal preference covers not only the miniatures themselves, but what level of abstraction a player is comfortable with on the tabletop and in the rules. That key point is what I believe is completely missed so often in this discussion, as evidenced by the post made by GHQ.

I enjoy the model building and painting aspects of wargaming as much as I enjoy the games themselves, therefore I prefer the level of physical and painting detail I’m able to achieve with 15mm miniatures. The fact that things can get a bit crowded on the tabletop is a secondary consideration for me. I’ve been building models since the 70’s and playing wargames almost as long. The fact that a 15mm wargame lets me merge the two hobbies effectively is attractive because, as I’m sure is common to everyone here, I don’t have infinite time to pursue all of the hobbies I’d like to.

That being said, I tried to get into 1/285th micro-armor back in the 90’s when I was at Ohio State University. I purchased a rule set and some pretty nice miniatures (they may even have been GHQ), and although there were several good game stores in town I literally couldn’t find a group that played - in a major city with one of the largest universities in the nation. I was, however, able to find a chapter of the International Plastic Modeler’s Society – so I went that route for several years and didn't try to get back into historical miniatures wargaming until Flames of War came out and established itself. Then I was able to find a community that played, and I still play with essentially the same group.

GHQ's post has severed to foster some good discussion, but it also has allowed a platform to rehash several of the old arguments that are, quite frankly, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, I personally found several key statements in the original post objectionable, prejudicial, and in some cases insulting.  I understand that GHQ wants to run a business, and that the new Team Yankee ruleset affords them an opportunity to sell more product. However, you can build up your own product without simultaneously tearing down someone else's - this is where GHQ's post failed.

The post starts by saying,

A while ago we posted a message from GHQ laying out some of the history of GHQ. In it we went over the relationships we developed with the US Army in the 1970's participating in the development of the Dunn-Kempf game. This game was developed by 2 army officers at Command & Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth named Dunn and Kempf. They contacted GHQ to do the miniatures for the game. During this time we took many trips to Ft. Leavenworth to work with the TASO (Training Aids Service Officer) who supplied us with classified photos and drawings of Soviet vehicles on a "need to know" basis. These models had to be very accurate because one of the additional purposes of the game was vehicle recognition training. They chose GHQ for this project because they were familiar with us from using our miniatures in WWII games. They liked the scale and quality of our miniatures. They could have gone with 1/87th or 1/144th, or any other scale. They could have contacted another company in a larger scale, but they thought 1/285th was the appropriate scale for Modern warfare. This was very gratifying for us because it validated our decision to choose 1/285th when we conceived GHQ Micro Armour.

The post starts with some really nice background on the company. I can certainly relate to the fact that during the 1970’s and 1980’s it was decidedly hard to get solid information on Soviet Bloc equipment. I was trying to build armor and aircraft models at the time, and most of the accurate kits of modern subjects didn’t really start coming out until the late 1980’s / early 1990’s when the Iron Curtain fell. This sort of background is awesome back story for a company.

However, right off the bat the post starts to turn south as the thesis itself represents a couple of logical fallacies wrapped into one. By using the word "validated," it attempts to lend an absolute authority to what comes after. Ideally the thesis should have been "1/285th is a viable OPTION for company-scale tabletop wargaming" (which is absolutely is). Unfortunately, the thesis reads as "1/285th is the CORRECT scale for company-scale tabletop wargaming because the military says so, and we worked with them." This is an example of both the "appeal to authority" and "anecdotal" logical fallacies.

The post continues:

GHQ came about because I became interested in wargaming in 1963. The games played at this time were largely WWII in 1/87th (HO-Scale) with plastic Mini Tanks. Because of the large ground scale chosen, we played on the floor. Historically wargames had been played on the floor by grown men with Britains, and other toy soldiers. This kind of gaming did not appeal to me. I felt that games should be played on a table. I felt that there had to be a ground scale, and a miniatures scale compromise that would allow realistic gaming scenarios. At the time there was no smaller scale miniatures than 1/87th for WWII.

My goal became finding the smallest practical miniature scale that was convenient to use, but still allowed a model to have excellent detail, accuracy, and recognition. I made wooden prototypes to test scales. I concluded that 1/285th fulfilled these requirements, and gave 9 times the geographical playing field as 1/87th. I then set about learning how to cast vehicles. I was already a re-loader, and cast my own bullets out of lead, so I didn't start from scratch. Dow Corning had recently come out with RTV (Room Temperature Vulcanizing) rubber. I bought some, made molds, and started experimenting. Casting lead in RTV was beyond the specs listed, but it worked fine. I contacted Dow and told them about my experiences. They were shocked. I believe that I was the first person to ever use RTV for wargames miniatures, or figures.

No one is arguing that GHQ was a pioneer in the industry. No one is arguing that they have served the wargaming community well for decades, and hopefully will continue to serve for decades more. However, wargaming in general has grown exponentially both in dollars, number of available systems, and in sophistication since the 1960's - which is even before I got going! Just because a company was first to the market doesn't mean that the original solution is the best, or only, or "correct" solution in perpetuity. Companies and gaming systems must grow and adapt with the times and the market, or they risk relegation to obscurity or eventually shutting down completely.

GHQ continues,

At any rate, you can see that the whole purpose of GHQ was to create the best scale to game WWII, and Modern warfare in miniatures…and the US Army agrees (as well as those of Germany, UK, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israeli, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia…) This is particularly pertinent today because of the popularity of Battlefront's "Flames of War", and now "Team Yankee". First of all, let me say that I give high praise to Battlefront for their business plan. They recognized the huge popularity of "Warhammer" and designed a WWII game that played like "Warhammer" in roughly the same scale to appeal to those interested in crossing over to WWII. To their credit they have dragged many sci-fi gamers into historical gaming. "Flames of War" is an immensely popular beginners gaming system that has attracted many adherents. It has increased the popularity of WWII gaming among beginners, and we thank them for that.

And sadly this is where the wheels well and fully come off and we move from building up GHQ product to tearing down Battlefront and the Flames of War system as written. The first sentence is a blatant appeal to authority logical fallacy because they're contending that the scale is the "best" because several militaries use it for their own simulations. That's fine, but wargaming – even on the historical level – is not always meant to be a 100% accurate simulation. There is a time and place for extremely accurate simulations, and certainly military training exercises are one of those. Not every player is willing to go to that level of detail or commitment for an afternoon's enjoyment. Each individual game will have different goals, and will be trying to simulate different aspects of historical combat. Furthermore, games must consider a timeframe for play and set an overall complexity level – those will determine what abstractions need to be made in the rule set. And ultimately it is those abstractions which are what is going to attract a person to a gaming system or not.

The next sentences essentially damn Battlefront with faint praise (or if you will an appeal to emotion logical fallacy) and then go on to belabor the "beginner" aspect of Flames of War. There are a few key errors in the assertions. Warhammer and Flames of War are not "roughly the same scale." Warhammer and Warhammer 40K miniatures are 28mm heroic scale (often >30mm) whereas Flames of War simply focused on the already popular 15mm scale. Second, while it is approachable and accessible to the beginner, characterizing it as a "beginner’s gaming system" is both prejudicial and insulting to its player base. Granted it lacks the detail of some other systems, but those were conscious design decisions.

From this point forward, the post seems to belabor the point that "everything you’re doing is wrong" if you’re not playing company level games in 1/285th scale. Many of the objections stated, around towns, hedgerows, terrain, etc. have some merit at a high level, but they represent very nit picky details - honestly some of which aren't helped by moving to 1/285th scale miniatures.  For example, you can easily abstract hedgerows in Flames of War – the Normandy compilations do that quite well. Towns can be problematic as you won't technically have as many buildings as you'd see if you had a 1:1 ground scale, but again this is one of the areas that is abstracted in the Flames of War system. For a 2 hour company level game, that's fine. If you want the same game to run 6 to 8 hours, go for more detail!

For me, the bottom line is this. If you are uncomfortable with the level of approximation intrinsic in a company level 15mm tablegop game – play Flames of War in a different scale by all means, but please don’t contend that it is an empirically superior game. Please don't contend that your chosen scale is the "best" or "superior" or is "validated" by some external entity. Instead realize it has to do with your own preferences, as a player, and your comfort level with the level of abstraction in the gaming system as a whole. Also understand that there is ample room at the gaming table for different games and different scales, and at the end of the day we're all just a bunch of wargaming geeks trying to have a good time!


  1. I had a good read of this and I agree with the points you raised. To look down on other systems due to scale seems to be on the high end of elitism. I do like some of their minis but the attitude irritates me.

    1. Yeah, there are a lot of games out there for one reason or another I never got in to, don't prefer, or just don't know anything about - but to disparage someone else because they like something I don't would seem to be the height of immaturity...