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Subject: Small unit tactical game systems (squad and platoon) and geomorphic maps rss

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Carl Fung
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In my heyday I played a lot of Panzer Leader and ASL, playing a bunch of scenarios on the included geomorphic maps. When I started playing the Red Barricades, it was a revelation. I was actually fighting in the factories and the roads didn't seems to always meander neatly into the side of the map. This in some ways led me to the Tactical Combat Series where it only had historical maps (albeit a step up in unit level).

As I look out into the field of small unit tactical game systems (squads and platoons), I'm struck by how many of the existing and new/upcoming systems are still using geomorphic maps. From Panzer Grenadier to Band of Brothers to Conflict of Heroes to Lock 'n Load Tactical to Panzer (1st and 2nd ed) to Combat Command to Fighting Formations to Advanced Tobruk System to Combat Commander Series to Old School Tactical, and even the recently announced The Last Hundred Yards also all use geomorphic maps.

Is this supposedly a given to generically represent as many situations as possible? Is it more the system than historical ground that interests folks?

Besides TCS, HASL, the Historical ATS, and recent Old School Tactical: Stalingrad, are there any other squad/platoon game systems that use historical maps? Company level isn't included as there are many many games that use historical maps (from Grand Tactical Series, Day of Days: The Invasion of Normandy 1944, Operation Dauntless, and Streets of Stalingrad (third edition) among many others). Storm over Arnhem is a bit of an exception as its platoon scale, uses historical maps, and is a game system, but the game system isn't strict in that others have expanded to division scale (i.e. Breakout: Normandy).

I'm curious what others think. Its unfortunate because I feel a bit turned off when playing on geomorphic maps even when being really interested in a system like Band of Brothers as I feel I'm not really fighting at Brecourt Manor. While I understand the multitude of these geomorphic maps can roughly translate to historical terrain, its still not the real thing. And no one chime in about historic vs. geomorphic North African desert maps, I get the joke.

I won't get into these approximated order of battles these small unit tactical scenarios (i.e. "Elements of Grossdeutschland kinda representing the forces that fought in one particular action in the East Front") as that's another pet peeve of mine...
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I agree with your general sentiment.

That said, I'll put forth two arguments. One pro and one con.

PRO Geomorphic:

Geomorphic maps have allowed gamers access to a variety of small unit actions that are small enough that they will only ever live in AARs, memoirs, and unit histories. The places are, in some cases, forgotten little hills known only by their height. Modeling those with historical maps seems a little overblown (though it would be awesome).

Additionally, geomorphic maps have allowed for greater flexibility in competitive scenario design for those interested in that aspect of tactical gaming.

CON Geomorphic:

The over generalization of the terrain gets very bland after a while. What once seemed like an exciting romp through the jungles of Guadalcanal or in the Ardennes forest is now just an exercise in spotting fire lanes, line of sight, or learning the quirks of each map's near-miss hexsides to exploit that knowledge during setup or advance.

Geomorphic maps produced in the quantity of ASL are simply outrageous. Between First Party and Third Party maps, I have 5 boxes full of maps. That said ... it's all stuff that couldn't be reliably used to recreate an historical combat with a close approximation of the actual terrain features and unique building quirks. In the end, that leads to lengthy Scenario Specific Rules or other oddities to try to cram the system into the scenario rather than letting the map do the talking.
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Scott Eagles
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Advanced Tobruk System, as a system, offers far more historical maps than geomorphic in its varying modules. The initial desert module, Tobruk, used generic desert terrain and a boatload of overlays. Most other non-desert modules use historical maps. I personally can't attest to their accuracy, but they usually look stellar and are great fun to play on.

S.
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Jason Cawley
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Carl - I agree that geomorphic maps are quite unrealistic, but there is a way of solving this in the present day with cheap paper maps or even cheaper electronic ones. The solution is to multiply the number of maps, while having varieties that are consistent with the much more uniform terrain types seen in reality.

See, the big problem with the old way of doing things was that the designers had only 3-6 maps to play with, so they tried to get all terrain types somewhere on one of those or another. The result is tiny bits of terrain separated by small bands of open ground, in a nearly uniform "random field" at a higher scale. 80 meters away from anything, there is some form of reasonable cover, which a 1/3 chance it is woods, and a 1/3 chance it is a small set of buildings, and a 1/3 chance it is a wheatfield. I exaggerate for clarity.

Real terrain is much more brutally distinct, and then larger in scale. In southern Russia, you get fields 800 meters wide with thin lines of trees between them - maybe - and some drainage gullies. There are maybe 6 structures to the square mile. Northern Russia has a continuous sea of trees with "lanes" of road and plowed field cutting them up a bit, and villages at crossroad "nodes" of those "lanes".

You are never going to get those two types to realistically geomorph into next door neighbors to each other.

But you could easily have 20 different geomorphic "steppe" maps and another 20 geomorphic "forested lake region" maps and another 20 that (and so on).

As long as the total map number is no object...
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Russ Williams
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Specific historical maps and geomorphic maps both have their pros and cons. For me, the main appeal of tactical systems is exploring a large variety of typical conditions and representative situations, rather than replaying some small number of concrete specifically researched significant historical battles. E.g. when I play Combat Commander, I usually use the random scenario generator, which obviously is not reproducing some specific historical battle, but which is creating a "typical" small battle, representative small actions which happened many times historically.

calvinboy24 wrote:
As I look out into the field of small unit tactical game systems (squads and platoons), I'm struck by how many of the existing and new/upcoming systems are still using geomorphic maps. From Panzer Grenadier to Band of Brothers to Conflict of Heroes to Lock 'n Load Tactical to Panzer (1st and 2nd ed) to Combat Command to Fighting Formations to Advanced Tobruk System to Combat Commander Series to Old School Tactical, and even the recently announced The Last Hundred Yards also all use geomorphic maps.

Hmm? Combat Commander and Fighting Formations don't use geomorphic maps!

I wonder if you are not using "geomorphic" to mean what I've already seen it mean, i.e. map sections which fit together in various combinations (CC always uses a single map of fixed size), but rather using "geomorphic" to mean "generic, not a specific map of a specific place"?

But even then FF's maps are all based on specific researched historical battles, and AFAIK at least many of CC's are too.
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Carl Fung
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russ wrote:

Hmm? Combat Commander and Fighting Formations don't use geomorphic maps!

I wonder if you are not using "geomorphic" to mean what I've already seen it mean, i.e. map sections which fit together in various combinations (CC always uses a single map of fixed size), but rather using "geomorphic" to mean "generic, not a specific map of a specific place"?

But even then FF's maps are all based on specific researched historical battles, and AFAIK at least many of CC's are too.


I stand corrected on Fighting Formations! I checked the map on BGG and it is historical. I believe I saw a sample which I took as geomorphic.

And by geomorphic I mean "generic non-historical maps" that may or may not allow multiple of them to be connected together. The Combat Commander maps don't look like they connect but I'd be curious if they are of real locations.

Thanks for the clarification.
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Richard Irving
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Combat Commander does NOT have geomorphic maps!

There are many ways to have various maps in tactical games:
- Geomorphic: Maps that be laid side by side in a variety of ways. All (or at least most) maps fit together (terrain features have to match along each side) on all sides.
- Tiles/Overlays: Maps is built with a variety of tiles (Commands & Colors is the most popular series) or sections of maps that can be laid over an existing map to change terrain. (Ambush had these.)
- Contours: Most often used in naval games to depict various coastlines.
- Full maps: Each scenario has its full map (though a map will be reused, usually by rotating so different sight lines come into play.)
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Kent Reuber
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Panzer Grenadier: Beyond Normandy, Panzer Grenadier: Semper Fi! Guadalcanal, and Panzer Grenadier: Cassino '44, Gateway to Rome are platoon level games that use historical maps. Most of the other Panzer Grenadier games uses geomorphic maps. I'm not sure how many of these are currently in print, but I bet you can still find them on eBay or the BGG market.
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Andrew Franke
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I am not sure what you mean when you say Old School Tactical uses Geomorphic maps. The game has 3 large maps that don't connect or need to. They are huge. True, other than the Stalingrad Map they do represent typical Eastern Front Terrain in winter or spring but all 3 are different.

I would offer a solution for you though. It is fairly easy to get a hex layover for any map you wish to make in Photoshop and then print on card stock. I have done this with some Normandy Battles with Aerial recon photo's I colored in and tidied up a bit.

Also the number of Bulge maps out there is astounding. As was mentioned if you can get a used copy of Panzer Grenadier: Beyond Normandy or any of the Advanced Tobruk Battle Modules you can get really nice maps. The question becomes how much do you want to spend.

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Mark Russo
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I totally agree with you Carl, I would love 100% historical, but in the end I if it is a game publisher decision.
Publishers are probably wary that gamers may not buy the game if the gamer isn't interested in playing half (5 of 10 for example) of the historical scenarios with historical maps shipped in the box. Those gamers might think those five historical maps are a waste and so they won't buy the game. Publishers probably feel that those gamers might be more likely to buy the game if they feel they will use all 10 geomorphic generic maps at some point in the game's lifespan.
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When it comes to tactical WWII games, or any wargame of any time or scale, I prefer historical maps. This is why I prefer the many historical modules made for ASL by various publishers. The down side is that such games may have limited replayability. There's only so many times you can fight out Edson's Ridge before even that gets boring and you want to move on to something else -- just like any other wargame for most of us.

Geomorphic maps, such as those in ASL, may be more generic, but they have the potential to economically allow for a wider variety of battlegrounds (potentially infinite?). Plus, I suppose one could argue that it doesn't matter how accurate they are. Whether hills, jungles, desert, French orchards, or Russian villages, the exact location of certain features may not matter in the design-for-effect mindset.

Add this to one of the other abstractions we accept in gaming, like that 12 4-6-7s in a German first-line rifle company are all equally rated as 4-6-7s: they can shoot with the same strength for the same distance and have the same percentage chance of breaking under fire. So, a squad is a squad just like Hill 621 is like some other big hill elsewhere, or a city "here" is a city "there." And so on. Close enough.
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Grant Linneberg
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I'm never hung up by geomorphic maps, I like them and the variety they make possible. ASL has probably got close to 1000 scenarios by now. And when I think about it, as much as I also love the Historical ASL maps, they aren't hugely different- it's still a map bent to fit a hex grid. One of the things keeping me from buying OST is that is just has that one huge map.
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Dan The Man
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At the tactical scale, I'd venture no one has accurate maps. Few historical tactical encounters ever actually get written up in any detail (who is going to be everywhere all the time during the encounter?), let alone with associated accurate scale maps...

Geomorphic is likely more accurate (though less precise) than something claiming to be "historical" for the vast majority of tactical encounters. And accurate TOEs? For one side, let alone both sides? Snicker. Rather, LOL.
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R K
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Geomorphic maps are okay for small learning or tournament scenarios. Stuff like the Guards Counterattack etc. Beyond that, I'll stick to historical maps. I can't stand big scenarios on geomorphic maps. Nothing looks odder or more artificial to me then 4 or 6 neatly symmetrical mapboards pushed together.
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Carl Fung
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Arcology wrote:

Add this to one of the other abstractions we accept in gaming, like that 12 4-6-7s in a German first-line rifle company are all equally rated as 4-6-7s: they can shoot with the same strength for the same distance and have the same percentage chance of breaking under fire. So, a squad is a squad just like Hill 621 is like some other big hill elsewhere, or a city "here" is a city "there." And so on. Close enough.


That whole "a bunch of autonomous self-contained squads with some select roving leaders and no unit heirarchy" needs a whole other thread discussion.
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Carl Fung
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DnaDan56 wrote:
At the tactical scale, I'd venture no one has accurate maps. Few historical tactical encounters ever actually get written up in any detail (who is going to be everywhere all the time during the encounter?), let alone with associated accurate scale maps...

Geomorphic is likely more accurate (though less precise) than something claiming to be "historical" for the vast majority of tactical encounters. And accurate TOEs? For one side, let alone both sides? Snicker. Rather, LOL.


I'll draw a bit of a distinction between accurate and historical maps. While the Red Barricades map is historical, it's not accurate as it still has the "40 meter wide roads". Yet I understand your point. It's more so that the house at the end of the road behind the hedge in hex 23.12 in Normandy also happens to exist halfway across the world in the exact same configuration in Burma. I remember playing ASL veterans who would judge more on the map than the situation they are representing ("Oh, ok, this scenario uses map 40, I know where the firelanes are based on this other scenario.")

From the map and OOB perspective, I probably am seeing it more from a campaign perspective than a one off isolated mission (i.e. a one night gaming session). In going to my original comment about the company level games, those I listed could be sectioned off and zoomed in and expanded to platoon or squad level game. Take for instance Operation Dauntless, the OOB is thoroughly researched at company level so there would be nothing preventing it from drilling down deeper and making the hexes 40 or so meters using historical ground. In this OOB respect, even Red Barricades has some flaws with its purchase system. No commander has even gone to his superior officer and requested, "I'll take an 8-3-8 Pioneer squad for $400, Alex."
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Martin McCleary
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the distinction comes in the amount of available data by theater. There are generally good sources of data, maps, photos of battles on the western side of things plus it's in the English language but for the east front not so much.

The terrain has changed considerably in most places since the war so even trying to use something like google maps is going to get you, at best, an approximation, unless the area is a historical preserve.

I loved that the PB HoD game tried to use the actual terrain but even so when I tried to xwalk the historical accounts and maps to the game map and scenarios it didn't quite fit. Still I'd rather have the actual terrain captured as well as can be.

Geomorphic is a compromise between specific historical battles and specific kinds of battles (movement to contact, hasty attack, etc.) PanzerBlitz was an attempt to allow the player to "experience" different kinds of tactical situations but never claimed they were specific historical engagements. At the scale they were working at they couldn't have done it anyway, the info wasn't available and for the most part still isn't unless you read Russian and can get access to the various archives.



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Sean McCormick
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While I enjoy the idea of historical maps versus geomorphic ones, I think when you drill down in scale enough that neither is particularly appropriate for modeling tactical combat. To my mind, the games that do it best are Up Front and Fields of Fire, which either completely hide knowledge of the battlefield or show significant terrain features that carry over from one battle to another while abstracting out the microterrain.
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I guess there are always details that we have issues with at some point, but it's worth remembering that games are rarely designed to be "accurate" representations of the action. The personnel, the battlefield, the weapons--one or all have been presented as an approximation of the real thing in order to make the whole work together.
The 40 metre hex, for example, is the designer's basis for the rest of the components to work within, but the designers do not believe that every action--or even some of them--depicts terrain with 40 metre roads. Far from it, in fact, but it's what they settled on to make all the rest of it 'fit'. So weapon ranges and soldier movement rates, among others, are abstracted to fit within the parameters of the mapboard--given that a hex is approximately 40 metres across.
All of these details are designed to work together to provide the 'feel' of the military actions presented. More accurate renderings may leave us feeling frustrated with the complexity, or bored with the minutiae.
It's a tough balancing act. Ultimately, I guess you have to find the system with the mix of realism vs playability that works for you.

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Cameron Taylor
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Call me greedy, but can I have both?
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Ronald EMCA LADD
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There was a recent thread where someone found a company that had 1 inch hexes on a rolled paper, much like how Christmas paper comes. [I'd provide a link, but, I have no idea on how to do that]. If you wanted to take the effort, could you not take a scenario that uses generic goemorphic map make your own custom realistic map? That could give you the best of both worlds.
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Andrew Stewart
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Vimy145 wrote:
There was a recent thread where someone found a company that had 1 inch hexes on a rolled paper, much like how Christmas paper comes. [I'd provide a link, but, I have no idea on how to do that]. If you wanted to take the effort, could you not take a scenario that uses generic goemorphic map make your own custom realistic map? That could give you the best of both worlds.


I can't do links properly either but from that thread I found Gaming Paper (a US company) that does plain & green hex paper in pads & sheets(1" & 1.5" hexes I think).
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Mark Russo
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1 inch hex paper from Miniatures Market, sold in rolls and sheets packs
http://www.miniaturemarket.com/ggp0802.html
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David Janik-Jones
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Miniatures. Easiest way to make terrain match reality, endless variety each game. Then add Arty Conliffe's Crossfire rules and play.
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For my tuppence worth,you can't have it both ways.That's not to say either is better than the other,which seems to be the way this thread is leaning,but you have to decide for yourself.As a student of WW2,i am more interested in the FLAVOUR,and geo boards give near infinite diversity.Yes,ive heard of the manic ASL players who study the line of sight on each board before playing.That's neither playing fairly nor realistic (how many company commanders on the advance walked the battlefield with a theodolite? - none,i'm willing to bet...)
I could go on,but my point is,if you want to play on a historically accurate map,then go do so ! Have fun too,because thats what it's all about.The problems only begin when you try to shoehorn historical battles onto geomorphic boards.
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