Many classic definitions of a wargame include some sort of a map. It’s not a hard and fast requirement these day with different game mechanisms, like the “tableau” wargame Tank Duel: Enemy in Crosshairs by Mike Bertucelli from GMT Games (2020). As I follow the War in Ukraine, the wargamer in me wonders about how I could depict parts of the battle. To do so I will need a map. So I started looking at the different ones out there.
Before I get into the Ukraine war maps, let’s review some wargame map basics. First, not all wargame maps are the same (duh!). Broadly speaking, I group wargame maps into several categories:
- Map Board: The mapboard uses a mapping coordinate system like a real map (Ranger, Omega Games)
- Hex Map: A hexgrid (or alternatively a square grid) is laid over the mapboard to regulate movement and combat (Advanced Squad Leader, Multi-Man Publishing)
- Area Map: The map is divided into areas (Victory in the Pacific, Avalon Hill)
- Point-to-Point Map: The map is a series of connected points or areas (Waterloo, Avalon Hill)
So, which style of map is useful for a wargame of the War in the Ukraine?
Mapping the Ukraine War
Many of the maps I see on social media are broad overviews of the fighting. As such, they tend to be small-scale (large area) with varying degrees of detail. If anything, most seem to be using an area map approach.
The UK MoD map is a broad overview of the fighting with likely lines of advance shown. It also uses what I call “creeping red areas” to show the area the Russian Army supposedly controls. The detail provided on Russian forces is extremely broad.
The official French map is a little different and focuses on the area the Russian Forces have occupied since the beginning of the war, but forces are excluded.
The open source intelligence (OSINT) community on social media is also tracking the war. @war_mapper delivers maps that show the pre-war occupied areas and the areas occupied since the start of the war. Interestingly, the illustrator doesn’t only use filled in areas, but shows a combination of “lines of advance” and “occupied areas” in a kind of combination area and point-to-point map.
Still others try to capture the seemingly different war going on in the Ukraine. @Nrg8000 produces two maps, one of which focuses on routes the Russian Army has advanced on using a very point-to-point map approach.
The second map from @Nrg8000 is a carefully labeled map showing the “furthest extent of Russian troop movements.” This wording seems to out of the way to not ascribe control of an area to the Russian forces.
Others try to capture the offensive/defensive thrusts and helpfully bring in some data from beyond the Ukrainian border.
Think tanks also are following the war. The daily map from the Institute for the Study of War is one of the more comprehensive. From a wargaming perspective, at least some force are annotated on the map. It also uses two concepts for area control; assessed versus claimed. The ISW has also been very open about how they are mapping the conflict.
If you have served in the military you very likely have heard of the Common Operating Picture, or COP. Twitter user Jomini of the West (@JominiW) produces a daily map that is the closest to a COP I have seen out there. From a pure conflict wargamer perspective this one might be the most “familiar” given the force laydowns depicted.
Zones of Control
Before we go further into maps I think it’s important to talk about another wargame concept that is highly relevant to a discussion of maps.One of the oldest concepts in wargames are Zones of Control (ZoC). In many classic wargame rules, a unit projects a ZoC into the six hexes around it. This usually represents recon and screening elements as well as organic artillery or other fires the unit posses that makes movement through the area around, but not occupied by the center of mass for the unit, become challenged.
In the Ukraine War, the ZoC concept may not be an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. While there is most assuredly some form of Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) or a Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA), if there is one thing the Ukraine War has shown is that the Ukrainian forces excel at striking into Russian rear areas. In wargame terms, Ukrainian forces often operate (quite freely) within the ZoC of Russian Army units. So how do you depict this in a wargame? It’s almost as though you need a hex map for the FLOT, an area map for the operational scale, and a point-to-point map for the supply and reinforcement phases.
The War in the Ukraine highlights to wargamers the challenge of what to map.
Hex Map: PRO: Good for depictions of weapon interactions. CON: At smaller scale (larger area) a greater degree of abstraction is required. The easiest map to integrate with ZoC.
Area Map: PRO: Can cover larger area. CON: Greater degree of abstraction; individual units cannot depict a ZoC.
Point-to-Point Map: PRO: Excellent for portraying lines of communications and key hubs. CON: Almost no integration with ZoC and unable to show “off-road” movement between points.
Tactical Battles: Tactical battles tend to focus on the interaction of weapon systems and as such are large-scale (small area). Are you recreating a tactical ambush? Then a hex map may be appropriate.
Operations: Operational-level wargames tend to focus on the interactions of larger units and different domains of battle. Some wargames, like Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games, very successfully use a hex map. If one choses to use a hex map then the map scale becomes very important. The Next War series uses a scale of 7.5 miles per hex. This would make a map of all of the Ukraine almost 100 hexes wide! In this case an area map might be more appropriate.
Logistics: The war in the Ukraine has certainly focused on logistics. From long convoys to ambushes, the map and area approach both can be used but may not be the most descriptive. Here is a case where a point-to-point map may be useful.
Next War – Last War?
I think wargame designers and players will learn much from the war in the Ukraine, and challenges for how one depicts the conflict will be a part of professional and hobby wargaming for a while to come. Alas, I wish the pre-war wargaming had better and prepared all (except the Russians) for the conflict upon us. Then again, it certainly appears that the Ukrainians prepared for this war a whole lot better than the Russians did…
Feature image map courtesy AFP