Wargame Wednesday: Soviet Cartography

Wednesday , 21, November 2018 5 Comments

A detail of a 1975 map showing the Pentagon. KENT LEE/EAST VIEW GEOSPATIAL

Today’s post was going be on “obsessive game modding” but we’ll get to that next week as this morning I came across an old article on Soviet cartography during the Cold War that is too good to pass up. From the Wired article:

“They (the Soviets) had mapped nearly the entire world at three scales. The most detailed of these three sets of maps, at a scale of 1: 200,000, consisted of regional maps. A single sheet might cover the New York metropolitan area, for example”.

Many areas were mapped in greater detail:

 “They mapped all of Europe, nearly all of Asia, as well as large parts of North America and northern Africa at 1: 100,000 and 1: 50,000 scales, which show even more features and fine-grained topography.  

Another series of still more zoomed-in maps, at 1: 25,000 scale, covers all of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as hundreds or perhaps thousands of foreign cities. At this scale, city streets and individual buildings are visible.

 And even that wasn’t the end of it. The Soviets produced hundreds of remarkably detailed 1:10,000 maps of foreign cities, mostly in Europe, and they may have mapped the entire USSR at this scale, which Watt estimated would take 440,000 sheets. All in all, Watt estimated that the Soviet military produced more than 1.1 million different maps”.

The article is full of interesting items for game designers. There are links to vendors selling the maps and for the truly obsessive designer the larger scale maps contained details such as “…. the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories”.

More on the next page. 

I found the description of a translated Russian manual on topographic mapping fascinating, especially mention of range tables on audibility of different sounds. No need for me to provide pedantic examples on how a war game designer could use information such as:

 “…. a snapping twig can be heard up to 80 meters away; troop movements on foot, up to 300 meters on a dirt road or 600 meters on a highway; an idling tank, up to 1,000 meters; a rifle shot, up to 4,000 meters”.


“…. a lit cigarette can be visible up to 8,000 meters away at night, but you’d have to get within 100 meters to make out details of a soldier’s weaponry in daylight”

The manual even discusses the diameter and spacing of trees in a forest during typical weather at different times of year.  This translation costs $295 and not priced for the curious but may be worth looking into when designing tactical to operational war games set in the 20th Century.

Reading this article spurred a train of thought for game design as many of the Soviet maps contained details missing from Western maps (usually sensitive facilities).  The article also makes the point that the Western and Soviet militaries had different outlooks towards map production. Because of the aeronautical focus of the U.S. military, demand for maps below the 1:250,000 scale was not as pressing compared with the detailed required to maneuver larger, tank heavy formations.

With the advent of computer gaming, much use has been made of the hidden until explored map feature.

An innovation is a game with three maps: the actual terrain, the map possessed by Side A and the map possessed by Side B.  Mistakes or omissions in the map a side possesses may prove consequential during game play.  Depending on the period of history the differences between the three maps could range from the immense to subtle. Compare a game simulating Cortez in Mexico to a 1985 Fulda Gap scenario. This concept can also be extended to different mental images of the same terrain possessed by two different sides (think of a city block in Baghdad as seen by the U.S. player and the insurgent).

I’m interested if CH readers know of games that use the concept of different maps or views for each side for the same battlefield. 


  • John E. Boyle says:


  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    Range Table of Audibility. Wow. That’s awesome.

  • There are links to vendors selling the maps and for the truly obsessive designer the smaller scale maps contained details such as “…. the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories”.

    –Pretty sure you mean “larger scale maps…” not “smaller scale maps.”

    Large scale maps depict small areas in detail.

    Small scale maps depict large areas in less detail.


    Large Scale Map Versus Small Scale Map

    A map which depicts a small territory is referred to as a large scale map. This is because the area of land being represented by the map has been scaled down less, or in other words, the scale is larger. A large scale map only shows a small area, but it shows it in great detail. A map depicting a large area, such as an entire country, is considered a small scale map. In order to show the entire country, the map must be scaled down until it is much smaller. A small scale map shows more territory, but it is less detailed.

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