Sizing Up Tabletop Wargame Scales

May 13, 2021 by Solar Cross

Wargame Scales vs General Model Scales

Ratio Scales

In the early days of map and model making it came to pass that the pioneers of such crafts wanted a way to express with precision the size difference between a real world object and their smaller representation of it. And so they created the ratio scale. The ratio scale is simple, consistent, universally applicable and unit independent. A common scale for Airfix kits is 1/72 which simply means 1 inch on the model represents 72 inches of the real subject of the model.

Wargame Scales

Wargamers however have still not adopted this scale despite also making small representations of big things. Instead they developed their own rather peculiar way of describing the scale of their models.

We may as well call this way the Wargame scale since no one else uses it. The wargaming scale takes a somewhat standard real world measure, the height of an infantry man, and then expresses the scale not as a ratio but as the absolute measurement (usually in millimeters) of what a model of that average infantry man will be. Popular wargaming scales are 15mm and 28mm. A 15mm scale means that an average infantry man model will be around 15mm tall.

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In the early days of wargaming this may have made some sense since virtually every single model will be an infantry man and if not an infantry man then a man on a horse. Moreover wargamers have no hard interest in precise scaling since the purpose of their models is to serve as game pieces. A wargame model’s most important job is to communicate its identity and location not its relative size to that of its real world equivalent.

The wargaming scale becomes still more murky when one wants to include models of things which are not infantrymen, or not human infantrymen. Modern wargames often tackle fantasy and sci-fi subjects, where many of the infantry combatants may have decidedly non-human statures.

Then of course there are the war machines: tanks, artillery and aircraft. Think how convoluted and obscure it is to say a Sherman tank is in the 15mm scale. One is saying that the size of the model of the tank is proportionate to the model of an average infantry man….

Head-height vs Eye-height

To deepen the murk, model manufactures for wargames found that the average height of a infantry man is somewhat obfuscated by the habit of soldiers for wearing hats and helmets of varying heights.

Many, but not all, manufacturers opted instead to reference their scale to eye-height rather than head-height. This is because however well a soldier conceals his head-height with enormous helmets he must still see and so eye-height can usually be readily determined.

However many manufacturers will not say whether their 25mm or 28mm is eye-height or head-height. This matters little for really small scales like 6mm or 10mm but for the larger scales this can result in significant and unsightly scale discrepancies when mixing models from different manufacturers.

Proportions: True Scale vs Heroic Scale

Another complication for the wargamer is the fact that within 28mm scale particularly there has emerged two variants: true scale and heroic scale. The latter scale employs warped proportions for dramatic effect. Heads, hands and especially weapons are made much larger than they ought to be.

Click here for detailed examples of the differences between true and heroic scale.

The consequence is that true scale and heroic scale do not look good together even while being on the same nominal scale, usually 28mm.

Uses for Scale Comparisons and Conversions

It so happens that the adventurous wargamer may want to source props, parts, models and scenery from the world of model kits not designed for wargames. These kits will tend to display their scale using the ratio scale. In order to avoid jarring scale mis-alignments it will help us to know what the ratio equivalents are to our wargame scales.

Scale Conversion Method

To convert between wargaming scales and general model scales we will use the following method.

We will take the real world average infantry man’s height to be 170cm, or 1700 mm, to eye level.

To obtain the ratio equivalent for a wargame scale we can then just divide 1700 by the wargame scale. Eg: 28mm (eye-height) will be equivalent to 1/60 scale. 1700 / 28 = 60 which translates as 1/60.

Conversely to find the wargaming scale equivalent for a ratio scale we simply multiply 1700 by the ratio. So 1700 x 1/60 = 28 mm (rounded).

Naturally this conversion method rests on an assumption that 170 cm to eye height is a close approximation of the average height of an infantry man. Since people’s heights tend to vary a lot by region, ethnicity and time in history this is open to some variation.

For wargame scales 10mm and smaller we will use 1770 mm as our average infantry man because at the smaller scales eye-level is scarcely different from head height.

Chart of Wargame Scales and Ratio Scale Equivalents

Wargame ScaleRatio Scale EquivalentNotable Games
3mm1/590 or 1/600 approx
6mm1/295 or 1/300 approxAdeptus Titanicus, Aeronautica Imperialis, Epic 40,000
10mm1/177Warmaster, Dropzone Commander
28mm1/60Warhammer Fantasy Battles, Warhammer 40k, Necromunda
54mm1/31 or 1/30 approx

Unfortunately the common ratio scales used in most non-wargaming model kits rarely line up with the ratio equivalents of wargames. The closest would be 1/72, quite a popular scale in use for model kits, which loosely lines up with 25mm scale although on the small side. Many diecast vehicle models (usually civilian) in the larger size are in 1/60 which is pretty close to equivalent to 28mm.

Wargame Model Scale vs Ground Scale

It should never be imagined that a given wargame scale applies to the scale of the tabletop battlefield as well the model size. At 28mm a largish play area of 2 by 1.2 metres is equivalent to a real area of around 120 by 72 metres. This is only about as big as an English football pitch!

Even the compact battles of medieval times would range over miles of terrain. The effective range of an English longbow is reckoned to be around 200 metres or even more. At 28mm scale this translates to around 3 metres on the tabletop. That is even before we consider the ranges of modern and far-future weapons, which can even be many kilometres in the case of artillery.

Thus the ground scale of a wargame in terms of unit movements and weapon ranges is necessarily extremely warped relative to the model scale. The more modern the represented weapons the more this is true.

Conversely the smaller the model size the less warped the ground scale can be. At 6mm scale a 2 by 1.2 metre table would be equivalent to a 600 by 360 metre battlefield, still quite small even for longbows.

In general this means that for scenery we can well use models of a somewhat smaller scale than our soldiers. They will dominate the table less and be slightly more consistent with the implied ground scale of the rules we are using.

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