David Bickley's Wargames Blog

The occasional ramblings of an average gamer, journeyman painter, indifferent modeller, games designer, sometime writer for Wargames Illustrated and host of games in GHQ.

Thursday 8 December 2022

Buildings in wargames

 I sometimes describe myself as a geriatric-in-waiting wargamer and have been knocking around in our wonderful hobby for not long shy of 50 years so it's quite possible that some of what I want to say about buildings in a wargames setting will seem strange to younger readers. A bit of context will help I trust. Back in the mists of time when I first joined Alumwell Wargames Society (1973?) most games were with 25mm figures and buildings were either simple scratch builds, Airfix railway buildings - thatched cottage, country inn, parish church mostly - or Superquick cardboard railway modellers' kits. In most games therefore buildings were representational rather than historic. Though one thing remains true down the years: if you put buildings (or woods) on a tabletop battlefield then wargamers will fill it with troops!

Things move on, they do not remain unchanging, and so firms like Hovels and Grand Manner pop up with buildings in resin, buildings which claim to be depictions of period buildings whatever your chosen period. Then comes MDF kit buildings and now the beginnings of 3D Printer files. All of these riches are available at a price to grace your games but one thing continues to irk me, and that is the vexed question of the size/scale of the buildings we deploy. My early Napoleonic games would feature the Airfix and Superquick buildings, but by the time I ventured into 15mm ACW games I was able to buy some bespoke items sold by Hovels. When I sold my 15mm armies on I kept the buildings for my growing 25mm ACW armies. To me the smaller footprint was what I wanted.

This of course leads directly to the issue of scales/sizes in wargaming. There are four distinct variables, all seemingly accepted without question despite then being mutually contradictory. They are:

Elapsed Real Time v Game Turn Duration

Unit number of figures v Historic unit numbers

Ground scale (both horizontal & vertical) v Figure/Unit scale

Building size v Ground scale.

You only need to look at pictures on this blog to see hills which are lower than buildings for example. Then there is the question of 'When is a building a building or is it representational of a complex of buildings?' - look at any farm or factory and you'll see what I mean. So wargamers will ask of course, 'How many figures can a building hold (see my early point)?' One answer might be to fix buildings onto larger bases and then the number of bases is simply those that physically fit one or more faces. This of course then portrays a single model as a complex of buildings. A simple solution but not very picturesque. Some rulesets accommodate this by restricting the number of shooting dice per face of building.

20mm Warbases German barn with 28mm Casting Rooms Miniatures French Grenadiers.

All of this has surfaced here in GHQ because, as you see just above, I've been building some Warbases' German rural buildings for my SYW games. Like the buildings from rival Charlie Foxtrot the 28mm scale/size buildings look huge to my eye. I would think they were really aimed at the Skirmish Gamer of such iterations as Sharp Practice for example. I want several building options for games but don't want the tabletop battlefield dominated by urban sprawl! My decision was to go with 20mm scale/size options and even the barn I've built and painted looks too large. It will be awhile until all four buildings are on the table in GHQ, even though they are all now built,but it is my hope that they will look more acceptable to the eye in relation to the units and terrain features than their giant brethren. 

Warbases 20mm German farmhouse.

Warbases 20mm German farm outbuilding.

Warbases 20mm German Rural houses.

Of course, this is simply a matter of my taste for the look of games and the size of tabletop battlefield here in GHQ. Over time I have tended towards putting my buildings on a base and calling everything on same as in hard cover, thus alleviating the vexed questions of both the size/number of buildings occupied and the degree of cover benefit. Where I've not done this, then some buildings are merely used for decoration/eye candy and confer no benefits beyond looking nice!

Small 25mm ACW scratch built farm buildings in situ

No doubt I have lost some to boredom by now, so I'll go back to painting the remaining buildings, leaving weathering and such until they are all done, and see what response, if any, this gets.


  1. Some 28mm buildings do look quite large to me but I also have a couple which you would struggle to get a table and chairs in. If they look about right that is enough for me and I only have two which kind of bug me on the table. I have also never given ground scale a passing thought and simply took the authors word for it, and so far I have no complaints. I also in the main do not stick to historical units, apart from my ACW collection and the several divisions based on Gettysburg or the large regiments cherry picked from the early war. I have to keep my grey matter reserve for the rules themselves.

    1. Well, that's you sorted then George.😉

  2. Think for 1:1 tactical type games, scale matching the figures work fine, so a figure looks correct in a doorway etc, but for everything else, dropping down a scale seems a generally accepted way to go.

    Since terrain is such a space hogger, having a single scale of terrain to service all games seems useful. To that end, I have settled on 20mm or 1/72 scale buildings. This will give a 1:1 match with my 20mm WWII tactical and a nicer smaller footprint for everything else, which will be 28mm small battle.

    The hill thing does make me smile because it is so obviously true, yet my eye seems to ignore the problem, but then I know that 18 men are not 600 and that doesn’t seem to matter either (well it might if you are a 48 man regiment sort :-) ).- Perhaps our brains over time (thankfully) override the obvious?

  3. Coincidentally I'm struggling recenty with the same type of issues in Chain of Command. Being skirmish platoon level the rules takes into account every single window/door in the model and allow 2 figures to fire from each. This is totally unsatisfactory when you have buldings with a full row of windows in all walls and other buildings with full blind sides or maybe one window only. Depending on what you put on the table, the same scenario can have very different outcomes. I have not arrived to a clear solution yet

    1. We seem to have settled on two dice from one building face, mostly.

  4. Great post.

    I use buildings the size that give the best visual impact for the scale of game. E.g. in a skirmish game set *inside* a city, building scale best equals the figure scale.

    On the other hand, when I want a large battle, sprawled over a large landscape, I use smaller buildings (e.g. 15mm buildings with 25/28mm figures). The smaller buildings help to convey the visual impact of the gaming table being a large battle area, rather than the gardens and orchard around a single 28mm building. BTW, I use the same trick for roads: wider roads for skirmish games, more narrow roads for big battles, even though the figure scale remains the same.

    In the end, when setting up my table for a game, I always judge everything (buildings, roads, rivers, ...) by the visual impression of the whole. Does it convey the visuals I want to achieve?

  5. As for rules mechanics: I only make use of individual doors/windows in true 1:1 skirmish games, such as wild west gunfighting. In any other type of game where units are used, it doesn't make much sense to have rules that work with unit footprints on the one hand, but then go down to individual figures when dealing with buildings (Chain of Command was mentioned ;-)). So, simply abstracting it out and limiting firepower per face of the building is a sensible mechanic, unless the scenario specifically says otherwise for a specific building.

  6. Interesting subject David and like many I have both ends of the spectrum. For my SYW and smaller 6mm collections I go more representative using a square base as a built up area. The buildings then get moved about as the area is occupied etc. the larger 28mm terrain I have is wonderful for Sealion etc… but where it really struggles is with historical representations. Best example here is ACW as it happens where to recreate a battle I find I need much smaller buildings, the building I have used for Shiloh Church is actually a small shed ! It’s tough as I do like the look of the larger buildings. Bigger buildings on bases just doesn’t work due to storage for me. Lastly let’s talk about my 28mm church ! Even though it is actually very small in scale it is enormous and I always struggle to get it on the table !

    1. Yes Matt, I've yet to find a convincing church in a smaller footprint, but matching my scratch built buildings.

  7. I am with you on the smaller buildings David… to my eye they just look better.
    I have used 28mm buildings for my 3rd Century Romans as they are intended for big skirmish games… but now looking at them on the table I wished I had used 20mm… maybe I will change them one day.

    All the best. Aly

    1. Good to have your endorsement Aly, thanks.

  8. I favour 20mm buildings for my 28/30mm wargames as I think they look visually more appealing.
    Having said that for 20mm gaming I use 20mm buildings so go figure, it's a wargamer thing 😀 .