Variable Terrain in Miniature Wargames

Napoleonic Map, created in 1798.

Situations Charte, aufgenommen und gezeichnet durch (recorded and drawn by) J. Haaß Artillerie Lieutenant zu (at) Darmstadt 1796.

Historically Accurate Terrain

The map show a section of the Zwingenberg defile in the Rhein valley immediately south of Darmstadt as it was in 1796. The fortified town of Zwingenberg is off the map, just south of the right-hand map corner. The walled town of Gernsheim on the Rhine can be seen in the bottom left-hand corner of the map.

The Rhine is just visible, it takes a sharp turn at Gernsheim. The large wooded area covering half of the southern map edge is the Gernsheimer Wald. North-east of the Gernsheimer Wald is the Hartenau, a marshy area (a brigade of 5 regiments, facing south-west with the left flank refused, is deployed there for easy reference only). Six cavalry patrols in the northern and north-western part of the map mark the bridges over the Modau, a stream which may be forded by infantry along most of its length. The Landgraben canal bisects the entire area from the northern map edge to Zwingenberg in the south-east, crossing the Modau between cavalry patrols at bridges #2 and #3, counting from left to right. The Landgraben can only be crossed in four places. The entire right-hand map edge is bordered by steep hills of the Odenwald.

Difficult Ground

The frontages of the 5 mm wargame units deployed on the above map are in scale. There is barely enough room to deploy a brigade of three infantry regiments and a battery on open ground between Gernsheim and Gernsheimer Wald. The area east and north of Gernheimer Wald is marshy, offering very little space for deployment. A brigade of four regiments is deployed there, facing north-west, with its left flank anchored on the marshes and the right flank anchored on the town of Bickenbach which sits astride the main road north to Darmstadt. Dense terrain like this is rarely seen on wargame tables. Average line of sight on the Zwingenberg battlefield is less than 600 yards. Wargamers fighting a battle here recently, marched and counter-marched their troops for nearly five hours until a light infantry battalion made first contact with four enemy brigades deployed south-east of the Modau, near bridge #6.

Unlike wargame tabletop terrain, real ground is almost never predictable. Until very recently, armies fought over ground which had been inaccurately mapped, provided that maps were available at all. Generals ordered to support each other in battle might be using maps drawn by different cartographers, each with its own particular set of ommissions and grave errors, and drawn in incompatible scales. In fact, one or the other commander might even be referring to the wrong map and not notice the problem until much later.

Out-of-date Maps

The topography of a populated area changes continuously. Maps may not show that a convenient trail has been cut through a forest, open fields have been flooded by the enemy, drainage ditches have been dug recently which may throw cavalry charges into disorder, and that snow melting in distant mountains has turned a shallow creek into a raging stream, preventing an army from crossing it. Conversely, rivers frozen over in winter may allow even heavy vehicle traffic to cross almost anywhere along their length.

Uncharted gravel-pits and embankments may be encountered which provide nearly as much defensive cover as purpose-built military works. Woods may prove unusually difficult to traverse, because the population density is low and the few peasants clear out very little underbrush as firewood. Some roads may have been improved recently, and excessive military traffic has damaged others.

Superior Vantage Point

From his position far above ground level, the wargame commander avoids many of the terrain difficulties normally encountered in real battle. If wargames are just games, variable terrain may not be an issue. Players will be content with the predictable nature and chess-like quality of the flat table before them. If historic simulation is the object of the exercise, we need to devise a game system which makes the lay of the land somewhat unpredictable, and challenging again.

Uncertainty and Opportunity

One advantage of using variable terrain as a factor of uncertainty in our games is that it breeds opportunity. What differentiates successful generals from lesser ones is their ability to recognize opportunity and to act on it decisively. Without clever exploitation of opportunities presented by terrain, position, force composition and other variable factors, most battles turn into contests of attrition. When there are ample opportunities provided in a wargame, glorious victory can be achieved or it may be wrested away at the final moment. Most importantly, an army defeated in unfavorable terrain can still put up a valiant and honorable fight, and the losing general may rightly claim that he did well under unfavorable circumstances.

Variable Terrain Table

The table lists the variable effects of 12 different types of tabletop terrain markers. The markers are placed on the table, face down, only to be revealed when a unit moves over or past the marker. The procedure for terrain set-up is very simple:

  1. Print out the Variable Terrain Table compatible with your rule set for easy reference.
  2. Create a typical tabletop for the period of simulation. If one player sets up the table, the other player decides from which direction he wants to enter the battlefield. Alternatively, both players set up a mutually agreeable table, based on an actual scenario map.
  3. Roughly estimate the number of enclosed fields, open areas, woods, slopes, and likely river crossings on the table.
  4. Assuming that there are approximately 30 identifyable terrain areas on the table, take three sets of terrain markers numbered 1 – 12, shuffle them face down, and drop one marker into the center of each of the areas. Markers indicating possible fords should be placed into the river, at least one 30-minute infantry move apart from each other. If the game system uses 15-minute turns, the ford markers should be just over two moves apart. Discard excess markers, but do not reveal them to players.
  5. Deploy forces or march onto the table, as required by the scenario. Defending players should be allowed to deploy halfway into the table, attackers march on from off-table positions.
  6. Defenders secretly study any markers on or immediately behind the deployment line, i.e. with friendly troops on or near them, but do not reveal the markers nor any hidden troops to the enemy. Defenders also study markers along one (1) assumed route of march from the table edge to the deployment line. The most likely route is down a road, leaving the road, and marching across terrain, at or near the most forward point of deployment. Any markers in areas immediately adjacent to the road may be studied. Leave markers in place, face down, until both sides have revealed them.
  7. In a campaign, if the defending player has occupied the battlefield for 10 or more daylight hours, he will have had opportunity to scout the area. Accordingly, allow the defender to study all rearward markers, and re-deploy units to take advantage of the terrain he finds. In addition, this well established defender may scout one terrain marker immediately in front and within one 15-minute tactical move distance of every deployed combat formation. Combat formations are infantry and cavalry brigades in a grand tactical game, or battalions in a skirmish game. A 15-minute tactical move is computed by dividing or multiplying the normal move rates required by the rules. If 30-minute turns are used in the game, the 15-minute tactical move distance is half of the normal move distance. If 5-minute moves are used, multiply the normal move rate by three, and scout one marker within that range. Cavalry units typically have better move rates, enabling them to scout further ahead than infantry.
  8. Start the battle as usual, taking into account any terrain markers a moving unit may happen upon.


Variable terrain can be inconvenient, sometimes even dangerous to careless generals who blunder into it. Infantry, cavalry, and command figures are never adversely effected if they attempt to move into impassable terrain at normal manœuvre speeds, they simply stop at the perimeter of the terrain area if the marker reveals that it is impassable. Command figures are particularly adept at scouting, because most rule sets give them the light cavalry movement rate. However, using a command figure for scouting may take the general out of command range of his troops occasionally.

Adverse Effects

Cavalry ordered to charge an enemy unit on the opposite side of previously undiscovered impassable terrain immediately loses 25 % casualties, and recoils to the perimeter of the terrain area. The unit is considered to have charged right into the trap, without scouting the approaches first. Artillery attempting to move across impassable terrain is immobilized for the rest of the battle, the crews abandon their guns and limbers, only the horse are recovered. It is never a good idea to scout an unkown terrain marker with an artillery unit.

Any unit routing across previously undiscovered impassable terrain loses 25 % straggling casualties in addition to any terrain casualties normally required by the game rules. Generals may be drowned if a unit they are attached to attempts to rout across previously unknown impassable terrain. Roll on the command casualty table normally used for fire combat casualties among generals.

Variable Variables

The variable terrain table is designed to represent moderate terrain. Players fighting in more difficult or easier terrain may change the distribution of markers to account for it. If more difficult terrain is required, add two or three batches of markers numbered 1 – 4 to the normal marker mix, shuffle them, and distribute as usual. Conversely, if less difficult terrain is required, add two or three batches of markers numbered 9 – 11 to the normal mix. Discard excess markers, but do not reveal them.

Miniature Wargaming