Geomorphic Vs. "Real" Terrain Wargame Maps?

Which is preferred? Does it honestly matter all that much to wargamers?

Historical terrain (shown here in the mapsheet for the HASL VALOR OF THE GUARDS on the left)? Or geomorphic generic terrain (shown on the right in ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER STARTER KIT #1)?

"In the Beginning," there were generic maps to tactical land games--we saw these in the earliest Poultron Press/Simulations Publications Incorporated titles ranging from ancient combat to mechanized warfare. When Avalon Hill published PANZERBLITZ (1970), geomorphic maps with generic terrain quickly became the staple for many tactical games. SPI kept on producing full-sized generic terrain mapsheets with their games such as PANZER '44, MECH WAR '77, and OCTOBER WAR--the closest they got for platoon level games were the two full sized mapsheets that could be fitted together in numerous ways in MECH WAR 2: RED STAR/WHITE STAR. PATROL (1974) man-to-man combat game was the notable exception to SPI's avoidance of geomorphic maps for its tactical land warfare games. Avalon Hill pressed on with geomorphic maps in PANZER LEADER and ARAB-ISRAELI WARS, and then in FIREPOWER. Jim Day's armored warfare designs for Yaquinto (PANZER, "88," and ARMOR) had geomorphic maps, as did his games for Avalon Hill's MBT and IDF. Of course, Avalon Hill's SQUAD LEADER, its progeny, ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER and its modules all have geomorphic maps. We see a lot of this still going on today with CONFLICT OF HEROES, the COMBAT COMMANDER series, Lock 'N Load's "HEROES" series, its WORLD AT WAR series, and now the WWII NATIONS AT WAR series.

Miniaturists had long modeled their playing boards on historical maps for the battles they sought to simulate and that was one (of many) draws to that aspect of tactical ground simulation. It wasn't long before board wargames attempted this--Martial Enterprise's LA BATTAILE DE LA MOSKOWA (1975) was the first major success, quickly followed by a number of tactical warfare "monstergames," including SPI's TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD (1976), WELLINGTON'S VICTORY (1976), but it was HIGHWAY TO THE REICH ( 1977), showing tactical combat at the company and platoon level, that can be fairly labelled as pioneering. The next major breakthrough was Victory Games' PANZER COMMAND (1984), a company level WWII armored warfare wargame with scenarios played on a map of the Chir River area, showcasing the defensive operations of 11th Panzer Division under Hermann Balck. Five years later, Dean Essig began his still popular (and intensive) Tactical Combat Series (TCS) with The Gamers' BLOODY 110 (1989), a two map monster tactical game with infantry platoons and sections and individual vehicles on an extremely detailed map of the actual terrain the 110th U.S. Infantry Regiment fought against the German 2nd Panzer Division over on the road to Clervaux in December, 1944. Every game in the TCS series has dealt with one tactical action (even if there are a number of tactical scenarios for each)--and that was a milestone in tactical gaming. Now board wargamers could take one system and use it for as many historical tactical actions as there were titles in that system covering it.

ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER (1985) system series was the next to pick up on this, which proved a departure from the usual geomorphic mapboard treatments in the "core modules" covering nationalities in this very popular tactical ground combat system. RED BARRICADES (1990) was the first Historical ASL (HASL) module, detailing the struggle for the Red October factory complex in Stalingrad using the ASL system, and others soon followed.

A slew of "Third Party Products" for ASL subsequently were published that provided mapsheets based on historical terrain, but it was one of those purveyors, Critical Hit!, that transformed its COMBAT! series into the ADVANCED TOBRUK SYSTEM (a.k.a. ADVANCED TACTICAL SYSTEM or ATS) that is almost completely based on historical/"real" terrain depictions. Only the first game, ADVANCED TOBRUK (2002), has generic and geomorphic terrain mapsheets. While earlier efforts, such as COMBAT STALINGRAD (1998) and COMBAT! NORMANDY (1999), were self-contained, stand-alone games in a single tactical WWII ground combat system that nevertheless focused on actual historical battlefields--much like Essig's TCS was doing--it was not until the ATS refined this system to its current form that this approach caught on as a more appealing alternative to ASL for many players.

Avalanche Press's PanzerGrenadier series has seemingly followed a hybrid path, providing self-contained games based on nationalities with generic terrain (for the most part) yet also publishing self-contained, stand alone titles based on actual battles (their most recent, CASSINO '44, is perhaps one of the most appealing).

MMP has practically all the bases covered--publishing ASL (geomorphic/generic terrain), HASL (historical terrain), ASL STARTER KIT (geomorphic/generic), the TACTICAL COMBAT SERIES (historical terrain), PANZERBLITZ: HILL OF DEATH (historical terrain), and the Spanish "War Storm" series (generic terrain). Perhaps most interesting, the company returned to the the game ideas that started it all with HIGHWAY TO THE REICH--a game that combined the system of PANZER COMMAND with the subject of Operation MARKET-GARDEN, Adam Starkweather's mammoth monstergame THE DEVIL'S CAULDRON. Once WHERE EAGLES DARE gets published, gamers can do all of the MARKET-GARDEN terrain in loving tactical detail, on a scale never before seen in a commercially published tactical board wargame.

Three maps to storm Omaha Beach with: (1) above left--WHITE STAR RISING (2010), (2) above right--TCS game series OMAHA (1991), and (3) bottom--ATS series game BLOODY OMAHA, D-DAY 1944 (2009)

What are your preferences for generic/geomorphic terrain versus historical treatments of the battlefields? Which games do this best and which ones do it poorly? Why?


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Comment by Eric Walters on December 10, 2010 at 11:39am

Mark, no doubt about that.  Even AH gooned it up with the 1st Edition of SQUAD LEADER (Purple box)--the maps were miscut and then mounted and did not match up well.  AH had to provide new "flimsy" maps with CROSS OF IRON that you could then remount on the originals.  And we're not even talking about the terrain design challenges of getting all the edges to match up and still be evocative enough for the scenarios to work!  

Comment by Mark H. Walker on December 9, 2010 at 2:04pm
IMHO, real maps are easier to make. Geomorphic is a pain. Trust me. :-)
Comment by Eric Walters on December 6, 2010 at 10:15pm
I must say, some of my most oft-repeated ASL stories involve HASL tales. There's just something about playing on the real terrain. It makes it the most memorable. Sure, I enjoy playing on generic terrain and geomorphic maps, but when the wild stuff happens on the historical terrain, it makes it all that much more memorable. What can I say. It's that role-playing aspect of these kinds of games. When I was playing PANZERBLITZ and PANZERLEADER back in the early 1970s, who didn't imagine those scenarios taking place on terrain that was exactly representative? I know I did.

I think it's the strength of both TCS and ATS that they are pretty much confined to games with historical situations and historical terrain. One wonders what might have happened had tactical games begun with this idea/concept in mind....
Comment by Brian Blad on December 6, 2010 at 10:44am
Both types of boards serve a purpose. Historical boards for a system like ASL that covers several thousand scenarios would be incredibly price prohibitve. The HASL maps typically are used to potray as many as 20 or 30 different historcial actions that took place on the actual terrain.

I play ASL, experimented with PG and ATS, end of the day I play ASL as my primary squad level combat system.
Comment by Lawrence Hung on December 6, 2010 at 8:29am

Comment by Lawrence Hung on December 6, 2010 at 8:25am
ATS Basic Game II Stalingrad map rocks in the faculty of realism!
Comment by Roger Morley on December 6, 2010 at 6:05am
As long as maps are aesthetic and as accurate as possible, I am quite happy, regardless whether they are realistic or abstract.
When talking of realism, I am always amazed at the miniature wargamers, some of their units and maps are fantastic
Comment by Stephen G on December 6, 2010 at 4:58am
The geomorphic mapboards are a great idea for allowing a wider range of situations to be gamed...when I look at a piece of terrain and think about translating it to an ASL format, there always seems to be a board that can be manipulated to match the basic layout and then further 'doctored' with overlays.

Of course, when recreating a specific battle, having a HASL style map is the go...I remember visiting Pegasus Bridge a couple of years ago and while I didn't have the map in hand it was good to then check the map against reality when I got home...it raised my understanding of the part terrain plays in a battle to a new level.
Comment by Roger Morley on December 6, 2010 at 3:05am
It does look like it is a cross between personal preference and how the 'company' that makes the map is able make the terrain type they use, work for the respective game.
I don't think I have ever come across a map that I can honestly say is bad, I just find them different ( e.g. Race for Tunis and Crusader both use geomorphic maps but the style is completely different).
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on December 5, 2010 at 10:09pm
I like the historical terrain, whenever and wherever possible. I still like the geomorphic maps though; it's not that they're bad, they're just not as good. The main limitations that I see with geomorphic maps, especially Firepower, MBT and IDF, is that there aren't enough of them to create as many terrain combinations as I'd like to see. ASL is far better in the variety department, with tons of maps plus overlays, but the other Avalon Hill titles especially tend to come up short.

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