When you first approach wargaming you’ll hear a lot about the “scale” of games. It’s a tactical game, or a strategic game. It might seem obvious that games played on maps would have differing scales, but it can sometimes be confusing to understand the difference. Publishers don’t always tell you what the scale is outright. You’re left to determine that yourself, chump. So how important is it to know or understand a game’s scale?
Let me clarify that I am not a grognard, and I can feel the groans of those among you who have rehashed these conversations ad nauseum. Part of the premise of this website is to chronicle my journey into and through wargaming. While I hope to be a grognard one day, as of this writing I’m still pretty green. If that resonates, what I can tell you is that scale is a way of communicating something intrinsic about a game, and most gamers find they enjoy games at a certain scale more than others, so being able to identify the scale can be helpful.
Some caveats, then. First, traditional hex and counter wargames are easier to classify in this way. This is because they have military units of defined sizes. Some may identify specifically as “a battalion level game” or a “regimental wargame”, but the scale of the units doesn’t necessary equate to the scale of the game. Other wargames use more abstract systems, where scale isn’t always applicable. Second, there can be variations on these levels. You’ll often see “Grand” versions of each of these scales, which are meant to introduce further granularity and provide a step up in scope. At this point I’m not sure how helpful that is, but it’s worth mentioning. Finally, while I’ve provided some examples of games at each scale, I think it’s important to note that games can sometimes fit best into one scale but take elements from another.
With all that out of the way, let’s jump in. There are kind of three generally accepted scales in wargaming. We’ll start at the top.
These games attempt to put players in charge of entire nations, empires, or coalitions. The focus is usually on a whole war, front, or theatre of operations. Players often have to deal with the politics, diplomacy, or economics of the conflict in some way. If units are present they will be abstracted to something vague, or they may be huge in size – like armies, corps, or possibly divisions. Turns will usually be measured in days or weeks.
Examples might be Churchill, Cataclysm, The US Civil War, World In Flames, Triumph & Tragedy, Twilight Struggle, Here I Stand, or Empires In Arms.
This is the exact opposite of Strategic games. At this level we’re talking about skirmishes or individual engagements upon a single field of battle (which may be small or large). Time scale will usually be hours or minutes per turn, and units will generally be company level or below, often down to platoons, squads, and maybe even individuals. In tactical games, unit facing is often a concern.
The titan at this level is Squad Leader or Advanced Squad Leader. Other examples include The Great Battles Of History games (like SPQR or Samurai), Band Of Brothers, Men Of Iron, even the Command & Colors series of games (like C&C Ancients, or C&C Napoleonics).
This is a newer (relatively) classification and straddles the line between tactical and strategic scale, so you’ll find they share some qualities of each, but also differ in key ways. Operational scale games are larger than tactical games in that they don’t focus on one individual engagement, but smaller than strategic games in that they tend to remain focused on military operations. Units are typically smaller in size than a strategic game and will include divisions, regiments, battalions, or possibly even companies. Turns will usually be measured in days or even hours.
Examples of Operational scale games might be Holland `44, Pacific War, Liberty Roads, Celles: The Ardennes, Silver Bayonet, or the games in the COIN or Levy & Campaign series.
There you have it. I hope this helps. If you feel I’ve overlooked some element here, or just messed something up, please let me know in the comments.