The Great Basing Debate

One of the most difficult and daunting aspects to any new wargaming project for me is the question of how to base the armies. I spend a considerable amount of time with bases and figures and blu-tac trying out endless combinations then once I settle on one end up changing it or rethinking it soon after. Having been overthinking it again the past few nights as it’s causing a holdup on a number of projects I think I’ve come to some conclusions. What follows is mostly a bit of a ramble to sort out my thinking on it, but perhaps others may find it interesting, or have gone through similar issues themselves. I can recommend a couple of other blogs looking at “downsizing” that provide some inspiration, namely and

The 120mm frontage does require a largish play area, but it is nice for the look and feel of the period. I could potentially shave this down to a 90mm or even 60mm frontage though if my ancient minimisation works out, but the visual impact will be severely reduced.

When I first got into wargaming a few years back my first rule set was Hail Caesar. In it, it recommended 40mm squares for infantry and 50mm squares for cavalry, using a few to make up a unit. After plenty of Googling I didn’t find any issues with this so started to use it for my crusades armies. Typically an infantry unit would be a 120mm frontage and a cavalry 100mm. Over time I was exposed to different rule sets with different basing requirements ranging from the complete agnostics (e.g. To The Strongest!) to the very strict (e.g. DBx). With my second project, the English Civil War, I agonised a long time over basing. I ended up maintaining the 120mm frontage, but as a combined unit of pike and shot. For the horse, I kept the 100mm frontage, but with a 40mm depth and did end up with something I’m happy with.

I had some concerns on the basing choices for the crusades, however, namely:

  1. 50mm squared cavalry for 10mm is a bit silly. The frontage difference is negligible for gameplay, the depth is unnecessary, and rules that do require multiple bases and matching frontage (e.g Soldiers of God) mean some things need fudged.
  2. Most 10mm packs come as 30 infantry. With 3 40mm bases per unit, that’s 10 infantry on each, which can look a bit loose on the base. Okay for irregulars but not for close order or formed infantry.
  3. Bigger bases are more awkward to apply basing material to. Maybe I’ve a poor basing technique but trying to get PVA into the nooks between figures in the centre usually results in flock and sand attached to figures rather than bases.
  4. It takes a long time to make an army. As I’m generally making both sides myself the time from starting a project to having something to put on the table is considerable. While I’m not necessarily a slow painter, I’m usually only able to get a few hours painting in a week, which means I’m maybe averaging one unit a week.
  5. Larger bases means larger table. While I do have the means to set up and play a large game, it usually requires the guts of a day to do it, as need to rearrange furniture, get fold up tables from the roof space, then set it all up, play the game and then pack and return everything to normal. At such I’m only getting a game in every few months at best.
Horse archers on 40mm squares

So with these in mind, for future projects I want to explore a different basing style and standard that will allow me to get armies on the table quicker and allow me to play on a smaller space, while still looking visually appealing and be scaleable if I ever want to go larger in future. I’ve already start implementing some changes to new units in my crusades forces, switching to 40mm squares for new cavalry and will likely rebase the existing cavalry at some point in the future. For the moment I will keep to the 40mm squares for the crusades, given how heavily invested in it I am and future expansions will likely be only a few units here and there. I’ll have some updates on this in a future blog post once I get the varnishing can out!

For the moment I’m mostly thinking about ancients, as gunpowder armies and beyond will have different considerations. The primarily drivers for this are twofold:

Not quite what I’d hoped for

The first is my Aztec project. I planned and purchased a large collection of figures for this based around a new basing style of 25mm squares, making units 3 or 4 bases wide and two deep. On getting the first unit painted up and test based I dislike it. Too fiddly and just didn’t look right. As formations aren’t of much importance to the period I tried a few larger single base options, which looked okay but would have the awkward flocking issue mentioned previously and the game size issues.

The second is my desire to do the ancient world. All of it. My love of history started at a young age with the classical Greeks and that never went away, though it’s spread much further and wider since then. I want to fight battles with armies across the breadth of the ancient world, all on the same basing system, and to try and do so at my current rate is just unrealistic in any reasonable timeframe.

So… where does that leave me? I recently picked up a copy of Horde of the Things and DBA 3.0, which use a basing style commonly referred to as DBx basing. This is mostly aimed at 15mm figures and generally has units on a single base 40mm frontage, with varying depth and figure counts to indicate different unit types. E.g infantry are typically 15-20mm deep while cavalry, chariots, etc tend to be 30-40mm deep. I had encountered this before and been unimpressed as 3 figures on a 40x15mm base doesn’t look like a unit of troops to me. In DBx this isn’t a concern as a base is not quite the same as a unit, but for use in other rules it doesn’t pass the “looks right” test. However, having seen some people using the basing in 10mm at a higher number of figures the look does get a lot closer to what I’d expect a unit to look like at minimum size. It also satisfies several of my requirements in that it would be quick to get an army put together and need less space to play so I wanted to experiment a bit and see how well I could represent everything I wanted using similar basing sizes.

I started with some of the most complicated units in the ancient world, the Republican Roman maniples. How do I represent them in a way that is historically and visually accurate but in a small space. A Roman maniple was 120 men strong, arranged ten men deep as best we can tell. It was made up of two 60 man centuries, but always fought together so the maniple is the smallest tactical unit required. I’m sure I’ll go into more details on the different types of maniple and method of fighting another time but essentially the were 20 maniples arranged in two lines in a chequerboard pattern with a screening force of light infantry in front and a line of veteran spearmen known as the Triarii behind. The spearmen were half the size of a standard maniple at 60 strong. So a basing system that represents those differences is important. It would be reasonable feasible to a roughly 1:10 ratio here, 12 figures to a unit definitely satisfies some requirements and arranged in two or three ranks will generally “look right”. But these are small units, tiny in the case of the 60 spear. What happens when we move to a Macedonian phalanx? It’s a 256 strong 16×16 man square, so would probably need 25 figures per unit in a 5×5. Not unfeasible by any means but getting into larger territory. What about a Greek hoplite phalanx? It would vary frontage and go for 4 to 50 men deep in extreme cases, though as standard it would be 8 men deep up to 12 men deep for larger units. So roughly half the depth of the Macedonian, but often a much wider frontage, with probably a lot more men still.

Attempting an accurate 1:10 ratio would prove a step too far, especially given unit sizes outside the Greco-Roman sphere are patchy at best. That way madness lies. A better approach would be a method that gives the appearance of this without being tied to strict numbers. Can I represent each of these and more on the same frontage and similar depth? What are the key visuals for these? A Macedonian phalanx should be a square and around twice the size of a maniple. A hoplite phalanx should be similar depth to a maniple but wider and more densely packed. Looking at other unit types, a warband should be big and irregular, while skirmishers should be loosely formed. Javilinmen, medium infantry and formed bowmen should be more regular than skirmishers but not as dense as heavy formed units.

To that end I’ve mostly settled on the following approach for infantry:

  • Maniples will be 4 figures wide by 2 deep on a standard base.
  • Triarii will be 3 figures wide by 2 deep or 4 wide and 1 deep on a small base.
  • Macedonian phalanx will be 4×4 on a deep base.
  • Hoplite phalanx will be 5×2 on a standard base.
  • Warband a loose formation of 12-15 figures on deep.
  • Skirmishers a very loose 5 figures on standard.
  • Medium infantry a loose formation of 8-10 figures on a standard.

What size for a standard, small and deep base? 40×20 or 50×25 are the best options for standard and 40×40 or 50×50 for deep. 40mm is more standardised across the industry while 50mm gives more space without figure squeeze. Small bases cause some issues as in some games they’re expected to be narrower frontage, while in others narrower depth. At the small scale there are being constructed at any such differences will be negligible though, so again it will be more about getting the look right.

Buckle in, things are going to get numerical. Most gaming systems using tape measures can be easily modified to allow large battle fields in small areas. For instance, converting inches to cm can give you the equivalent of a 10ft x 6ft gaming table on a standard 120cm x 70cm dining table with small frontage units. The main issue comes from grid based systems. For the purposes of this, I’ll be using To the Strongest! as a basis. In TtS it recommends a 50mm grid box for a 40mm frontage. This works, but is a bit tight, and wouldn’t quite fit the three lines of the maniples, plus the various counters and tokens required for the game. On the aforementioned 120x70cm table I could go all the way up to 100mm grid squares and still fit a 12×8 grid as required by the rules. I find the best choice is to go with grids about 20-30mm bigger than the frontage. With a 120mm frontage I’d tend to use 150mm squares. Extrapolating this down, for a 40mm frontage I’d probably want a 60mm grid square, and for 50mm frontage a 70-75mm grid square. With a 60mm square the 12×8 grid would feasibly fit on a large coffee table or pin board. While you can of course use smaller bases in bigger squares, it starts to look a bit strange. If I was to use a 40x20mm unit in a 100mm grid square there’d be around 60mm between each unit and it’s nearest neighbor in the line of battle. That just doesn’t quite sit right.

For a 100mm grid square my maximum base size would probably be 80mm frontage. This fits well with a 40mm frontage original basing as doubling a 40×20 up as armies grow can lead to a 80×40 quite nicely, which will still fit well on a dining table size play area.

I still have some testing to do, but it is looking more and more likely that a 40x20mm standard will be the route I take from a speed, ease of use, visual appeal, and scaleablity perspective. I do have a few more questions to ponder though. What of cavalry? 10mm cav will fit happily enough in a line on a 40×20, but a 40×30 would give a nicer visual appeal. This would however make a 60mm grid box a squeeze for two units to occupy. I could push up to a 65 or even 75 grid box, but then the 40×20 infantry may start to look a little lost. I need to think some more on small units too, whether it’s better to drop them to 30x20mm, or keep 40mm frontage but drop the depth to 15mm or even 10mm.

Well done if you got through this far! I’d like to say you get a gold star, but really you probably just get a pile of regrets from the time you just spent reading this. As you can see I spend far too much time over thinking these things. If you did read all the way to the end and have any thoughts or comments please do share them as I’ll be keen to hear from those with more experience in the hobby than I have and those who’ve gone through similar thought patterns themselves.

I hope my next post will be much more colourful and interesting, with lots of pictures of what all I’ve been working on these past 6 months or so once I get everything photographed. There’ll be the next installment in the Crusades history series coming at some point, I’ve just to base up some infantry to fight out the battle of Dorylaeum to inspire the accompanying historical post.

Thanks for reading,



7 thoughts on “The Great Basing Debate

  1. Matthew….I feel your pain. I have embarked on a Romano-British + allies + enemies set of 10mm armies. I have the same quandary re getting the look right, being multi-rule flexible and not having huge amounts of time (normally) to paint vast quantities of figures for the dense look. I am oohing and arring between 40mm width and 60mm width. I probably will go with 40mm for DBX symmetry reasons but then I have the question of how many figures per base. standard 15mm numbers for 10mm look ridiculous (ie 4,3 or 2) so may double them in principle. With close order infantry the 15mm depth will need to be bumped up to 20mm in reality. Anyway….its a minefield and glad that someone else has similar problems to me!


    1. Thanks for your thoughts, glad to know I’m not the only one overthinking such things!

      Even since posting this I’ve hit my first roadblock when using it in spear or halberd armed troops with forward facing weapons. At a 20mm depth it means their weapons push out over the front of the base so would end up tangling with the enemy front! To that end I’m probably going to have to base troops like this on a slightly deeper base, 40×30 seems to work well. This still provides the benefits of the smaller number of figures and dense look but gives a little more clearance on the front.

      As you say on DBx style basing the 15mm depth doesn’t really work for 10mm if doing two ranks as it’s just too much of a squeeze, so 20mm minimum for sure.

      For my Aztecs, with a fairly loose order I’ve gone with 4 figures on skirmishers, 6 on standard (40×20) and 12 on deep (40×40) bases. This is working pretty well.

      For the close order infantry I’m trying out for next project (Either Han Chinese or Trojan Wars) I’ll probably go with two ranks of 5 per base for a denser formation of spearmen.

      My plan for Roman style infantry was to maybe go two ranks of 4 for legionary style then close order shield wall type troops go two ranks of 5. Depends on what figures you’re using too and how well the pose fits.

      Be interested to hear what you end up settling on, Romano British is one I’d like to get to at some point down the line!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Matthew, I have decided to go with the 20mm minimum base depth and adopt DBMM basing in principle. It seems to look right and feel right if thats the right expression. So I am up to 600 painted figures ready to base with a further 1400 to do….time on my hands has been gainfully employed of late 🙂


    1. Glad to hear you’ve been cracking on, that’s an impressive number of figures! The 20mm and 40mm depth is generally working well for me so far. Looks well as dense ranks of loose order both. Hope you post some pictures of your work on your blog or elsewhere when you’re done!


  3. and so I now have absolutely settled on 80 x 40 mm bases for 10mm figures. Took a long time to get to this but its final 🙂 an 80 x 40mm fits 30 infantry quite nicely for close order.


    1. Good choice, I went with 80×40 for my ECW and Trojan War projects as allows enough space to really show a unit without being too cramped. My ECW units in particular are in three ranks of 9 with drummers and colours behind and command out front and still have space to spare. The only reason I don’t do it with all my projects is some I want to do faster and use in smaller play areas.


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