Friday, September 21, 2012

Using topographical maps in miniature wargaming

OK, be prepared to get your nerd on!  I will be diving into some serious math down below, so I hope not to bore anyone too badly...especially considering the length of this blog entry as well! 
Just because we play with toy soldiers don't mean that we can't add some realism

I will be the first to admit that I am just as guilty as almost every other gamer about representing actual terrain on a gaming table.  All one has to do is look at any gaming table at a local shop, a convention, or in one's own home to see how flat it is and lacking of real world terrain features that creates the challenge for real world commanders.  Most of us, at least in my opinion, don’t have much terrain features on the board due to the cost and storage of various generic terrain pieces, like trees, hills, buildings, etc. But this is hard to justify when one considers the amount of money and space that we use towards miniatures, especially unpainted miniatures.  Another reason I think is a problem is the set up and take down time while setting up a board.  Most of us don’t have a place to set up a good size gaming table and can leave the board as is for a while.  I also believe that most gamers like to do various generic games based off of actual battles, but they don’t want to make the commitment to spending the resources to actually do a detailed terrain layout for a real world battle. 

This problem of lack of terrain features confuses some players as they have a visual understanding of what they see vs. an abstract understanding of what the terrain on the table really represents.  A perfect example of this is if one was to game the Battle of the Cowpens, in South Carolina, 1781.  If you look at most maps in books or gaming magazines you see a flat, featureless plain without any trees in the main area of engagement.  Most gamers would not or cannot understand how the British commanders failed to see the Continental regulars who were standing in full open view at the opposite end of the battlefield and marched themselves into a trap.  I had the fortune of visiting the battlefield and seeing that even with the most gentle of slopes how the British could not see the Continental line.  Some systems, like Too Fat Lardies, have blinds and spotting rules, but to most gamers, they can’t wrap their heads around the idea of a unit been hidden in plain view.  That is where having access to topographical maps can help. 

Anyone who has served in the armed forces should be familiar with topographical (topo) maps, and basics of map reading.  While there are various map scales out there, the US Army mainly uses the 1:25,000 and the 1:50,000 scale maps for land navigation, while aviation used different scaled maps.  Because I am an ex-Army ground pounder, I am still comfortable around these maps.  I realized that if I was to do a game board based off of a topo map that it would be very consuming of resources (limited use, money for material, time consuming to make, storage space, etc.)  But these maps can be very useful for understanding the need for more terrain on the board, whether it would be trees, hills, etc.  
An example of a standard US 1:50000 scale topographic map
I just recently ordered several 1:50000 maps for West Falkland Island, the area where most of the fighting was done during the 1982 Falklands Conflict.  I am planning to use these maps to create a detailed board for the Battle of Goose Green and generic boards for the battles for the ring of hills around Port Stanley for my 10mm Falklands project.  I also found some topo maps for areas of combat in Vietnam during the American involvement in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Again, I plan to use them to give me a good generic feel for the terrain that should be there.

So, before I will go in to how I plan to use the topo maps, lets us first look at some basic information on topo maps.  Different agencies that do mapping have done different scales for various reasons, so one map might be 1:24000 and another might be 1:63360, in the case of Alaska by the US Geological Survey (USGS).  The area of the map is divided into square grids with markings showing different natural and man-made terrain features.  The square grids are set up to equal 1000m on a 1:50000 map.  On this scale of a map, 1cm will equal 50m and 1” will equal 4166’ on the map.  Contour elevations, or height, of the terrain is done in 10m and 20m intervals, with 5m intervals showing up on some terrain features.

Now, how does affect my gaming board? Well, first we need to look at gaming scale of the main rules that that I will be using in conjunction with the topo maps.  First, I will be using Charlie Don’t Surf for my Vietnam games and a modified version of it for my Falklands’ company sized engagements.  Then I will probably be using Cold War Commander or another undetermined rules for my Falklands’ battalion sized engagements (I will probably expanded this to include Vietnam battalion level gaming as well.) 

Next, we need to look at the gaming ground scale for these games.  I will cover Charlie Don’t Surf first, and then Cold War Commander next. If I have not bored you yet on ground scale, numbers, and math, go ahead and get yourself a pot of coffee, because it is going to get a bit boring, but informative, for a while.

In Charlie Don’t Surf, the ground scale is 12”=100 yds (300’), or 1:300 scale.  This actually means micro-armor miniatures are very close to being in scale to the game’s ground scale.  But to keep things simple for my math conversions when I am scaling the 1:50000 topo map to the game board, I am changing the ground scale just slightly by making 12”=100m, or 1:328 scale.  That means that a one square grid on a 1:50000 map will take up a 10’ x 10’ table.  But my biggest gaming table will be 6’ x 4’, which means a 0.6 x 0.4 square grid area, or a 0.37 x 0.25 square mile area.  As for the contour lines, a 20m (65.6’) contour will be 2.4” hill and a 10m (32.8’) contour would be 1.2” hill.  I will round both of those up to 2-1/2” and 1-1/4” rises in the terrain respectfully.  When you consider that the M48A3 tank was just over 10’ (3m) tall, using the 10m contour lines for the next level of elevation makes sense in gaming. In the term of using my 10mm miniatures instead of the more closer scale of 1:285/300 or 6mm,  my figures are about twice as tall as they should be compared to the ground scale, but that really does not bother me.

I am currently using 50mm hexes for my basing of squads.  With a 50mm x 50mm base, the base roughly represents a 16.7m (54’-9”) front and a 16.7m depth, or roughly a 34.9 sq meter area per man for an eight man squad.  That sounds like a very large area, but when you think that soldiers were expected to keep a 5m to 15m distance between each other in various terrain conditions, that is about the right size base for this ground scale. It comes up to be roughly just under a 6m x 6m area per soldier in the eight man squad.  On my bases, I only have four figures instead of eight because they start looking crowded after five are on a 50mm x 50mm base.  This is why I am partly thinking of mounting all future 10mm squads on two 50mm x 25mm bases, with four figures, so that each base now represents a fire team, or a half squad.  Plus, it makes it a lot easier to store them as hexes are awkward to store.  For ANZAC sections (squads), which I will be doing later, I will have two 30mm x 25mm stands and one 50mm x 25mm stand.  This is because the ANZAC section were broken down into three groups, a Command and Scouting group of three men, a Gun group of three men, and a Rifle group of four men.  This way, I could, in theory, also use them to game a Vietnam version of Too Fat Lardies’, Troops, Weapons and Tactics.  I will probably do the same for the Viet Cong, as their squads were broken down into three cells of three.  But the figures that Steve painted up for me will always remain on their bases as he did an excellent job on them.

In Cold War Commander, the ground scale is 12”=600m (1968‘), or 20” = one square grid on a 1:50000 map.  Needless to say, even 3mm figures would be grossly out of proportion in the height of the miniature to the ground scale.  In this scale, my 6’x4’ gaming table covers a 3.6 x 2.4 squared grid area on a topo map.  This equals to a 2.2 x 1.5 square mile area to give you a better understanding of the size of action.  In this ground scale, a 20m contour elevation will be about 0.4” in height and 10m would be 0.2”.  I will alter the heights to be 0.5” and 0.25”, respectfully, to make it easier to find the material to build up the hills.  Also in this scale, my 50mm x 25mm bases scale out to be a 100m frontage for a platoon.  As platoons vary in number of available men, I will use the numbers of 30 men in a platoon as that is pretty much the full strength of British platoon for the Falklands or an average field strength of an American Army platoon in Vietnam, so my 50mm x 25mm base ground scales out to be about one man for roughly every 13m x 13m area, which again falls within the 5m to 15m distance between men, depending on terrain conditions.  So again, everything works out well for keeping the same base size.

Now, that boring math section is done, what I am planning to do is start doing some specific detailed terrain for key battles for the Falklands (Goose Green for sure), and pick some random representative locations for Vietnam.  I plan to enlarge the topo map up to the scale that I need for covering a 6’x4’ table.  I might run some Kriegsspiel map games like this, but mostly I plan to use them as a template to cut contour levels on various sizes of material and build up the table.  I plan to somehow cut the finish board into small squares (maybe 2’x2’) for packing and storage.  This way I can also take them to a game store or to a convention.  When I get my Falklands maps, I will start this process for Goose Green and keep a running blog entry on the progress.  Hopefully, I will have this done in time the 35th anniversary

This is an example of what I am hoping to accomplish
Until then…be seeing you


The Rusty Nail said...

I share your love of maps Joe. Certainly at Goose Green, the use of dead ground (even small folds in the Darwin Ridge feature) could literally mean the difference between life and death! Great approach. All good things, Rusty.

Pat G said...

A great article. "Real life" terrain is incredibly dense. Take a "flat" field with a mere 3' depression in the middle. Throw a 3' crop on top of that and you can hide a whole platoon or more in there. And let's not get into setting up your SAW team in the drainage ditch or behind the access road.

Looking forward to more.

Dougie said...

Great stuff Joe, I'm digging my old Falklands Maps out as we speak !

Sapper Joe said...

Thanks, guys!

Sorry that I didn't reply sooner