Musing on distance distortion in Tilly’s Very Bad Day

A couple of people have commented on the seemingly distorted distances in Tilly’s Very Bad Day with ranges being overly generous compared to unit frontages. I thought I’d respond. The truth is, I deliberately distorted the distances to enhance game play and they’re actually not as wrong as folk seem to think.

This post is part of my musing on Tilly’s Very Bad Day.

Units and distances in Tilly’s Very Bad Day

The rules are pretty clear about what a unit represents, movement distances and weapon ranges.

A unit is nominally a brigade of about 1-2,000 Pike+Shot, Shot or Rabble. Horse, Dragoons and Light Horse have half that number.

Base width

The actual unit of measure is one half a base width, called a Tilly Unit of Measure or TUM for short. This is half the base width of an infantry or cavalry unit.

Movement allowances:

Open terrain: Non-charge moves in open terrain are up to:

  • 8 TUM for Commanders and Light Horse
  • 6 TUM for Horse and Dragoons
  • 3 TUM for Pike+Shot, Shot, Rabble and limbered Cannon
  • 0 TUM for unlimbered Cannon; they cannot move but can pivot


Horse and Light Horse have a shooting range of 2 TUM. Shot, Pike+Shot and Dragoons can shoot 4 TUM

Kircholm-2668 Polish Musketry in the centre
Kircholm-2668 Polish Musketry in the centre

Is there a problem?

The problematic bit, for some people, are the ranges compared to a unit frontage. Pistols get to shoot the width of a infantry brigade. And arquebus and muskets get to fire twice that. Surely that is a problem.

Doctor Phalanx called the ‘problem’ out in his post on Distortion of ranges in Grand Tactical wargame rules “the smallest measurements are subject to some sort of telescopic distortion”. To be fair the good Doctor didn’t have a problem with that and I’ll mention his explanation below.

More recently Chris Helm contacted me about Tilly’s Very Bad Day. Amongst a whole bunch of positive and/or constructive feedback he called out the distance distortion, “The rules give small arms range as twice the frontage of an infantry unit, which would be OK if the unit was actually what it looks like, vis a battalia. But the unit is depicting a brigade, with a likely frontage somewhere between 400 and 800 paces and that discrepancy is hard to reconcile.”

So is it really that bad?

Brigade frontage

Lets start with the the frontage of a brigade in the 17th Century. Chris mentioned “400 and 800 paces”. The definition of pace varied but my standard conversion rate is 1 pace = 0.75 metres. So Chris is saying a brigade had a frontage of 300 to 600 metres. Is it true?


At that time foot formed into in a variety of orders (i.e. density) depending on the situation. The table summarises these different orders given in Gush (1975).

Order Distance between files When used
Closest 6 inches (0.15m) Pikemen receiving cavalry
Close 18 inches (0.46m) Pikemen receiving cavalry
Order 3 feet (0.91m) Normal fighting spacing
Open 6 feet (1.83m) About face or ‘doubling the files’
Double distance 12 feet (3.66m) Under artillery fire

From this it is obvious that trained units could expand and contract quite a lot. But lets assume a base width is the frontage of a brigade in ‘order’, the normal fighting spacing. That means 0.91m per file (i.e. man in the front rank).

Imperialist Tercio and Catholic League Big Tercio

Drawing on my analysis of William Guthrie on Tilly’s Big Tercios, in the early Thirty Years War an Imperialist brigade of 1000 men was 64 files wide. One of the Catholic League big tercios was 79 files wide.

64 files would make an Imperialist tercio of 1,000 men only 58 metres wide in ‘order’. One of Tilly’s big tercios would be 72 metres in order.

Swedish Brigade

What about the Protestants, whose squadrons formed in a shallower formation with only 5-10 ranks? Remember, we’re interested in the brigade frontage, not squadron (aka a battalion). The squadron depth doesn’t tell us about the brigade structure. A Swedish Brigade had quite a complicated internal configuration compared to those of the Catholics but probably had a similar frontage to the Tilly’s big tercios because the squadrons were in several lines.

30YW-871 - Swedish - Pike and Shot - Yellow Brigade
30YW-871 – Swedish – Pike and Shot – Yellow Brigade

Dutch Brigade deployed deep

The Dutch invented the “linear” formation of the Protestants around 1600 so their practice might suggest what the Germans did later in the century. Looking at Dutch Battle Plans in Roberts (2010) the Dutch appeared to brigade two battalions together. Each battalion 500 men with a pike block in front and muskets behind. Assume they are split 50/50 each block would be 25 files wide and 10 rows deep (Dutch practice of the time). Although each component was shallow (10 ranks), the battalions formed deep (25 files wide and 20 rows deep). These units were only 23 metres wide. Allowing for a 30m gap between the two battalions, the width of a brigade was probably about 96 m wide.

30YW-829 - Catholic - Pike and Shot
30YW-829 – Catholic – Pike and Shot

Dutch Brigade deployed shallow

The Dutch and others did deploy with the shot on the flanks. Daniel S, in a comment in TMP: Individual frontages in the ECW and Thirty Years War, mentions Johann von Nassau-Siegen and his “Observationes, Landesrettungswerk, Memorial, Discours”:

A pre-War document from the archive of Dutch military reformer Johan von Nassau-Siegen details the space needed to form up an entire army in the ‘Dutch style’
Each infantry battalion (500 men) required 75 feet of space to deploy it’s pikemen:
250 men (25 files wide, 10 ranks deep) with 3 feet of frontage for each file.
Each wing of shot (125 men) required 54 feet of space:
36 feet for the 12 files of shot
18 feet for the gaps between the sub-units of shot and the gap between the shot and pike. (6 feet for each gap)
This drawing by another Dutch reformer, Simon Stevin illustrates the formation and might be easier to understand than the text.

The distance between battalions was set at 100 feet

It is clear that the pikemen were in close order and the musketeers in order. According to this a Dutch battalion of 500 men would have a frontage of 183 feet or 56 metres. Two of these, side by side, with a 100 foot gap, would be 466 feet or 142 metres.

Bit of a rant about battalion formations

Speaking of which the pike in the middle and shot on the flanks is a bit of a wargaming stereotype. Although it was used, by both Catholics and Protestants, the squadrons/battalions of the period formed in all sorts of interesting shapes. The four squadrons in the Swedish Brigade, for example, each formed up in a different way: (1) pikes to front and muskets behind, (2) pikes to left and shot to right, (3) pikes to right and shot to left, and (4) pike in middle with shot split on each side.

An engraving in Roberts (2010) shows French infantry in 1628 using the Dutch formations with pairs of battalions. Although the engraving suggests the shot formed up entirely around the pikes rather than behind.

Summary of frontages

Summary of frontages so far:

  • 58 metres for an Imperialist Tercio of 1,000 men
  • 72 metres for a Catholic League Tercio of 2,000 men
  • 72 metres for a Swedish Brigade of 2,000 men
  • 96 metres for a Dutch Brigade of 1,000 men deployed deep
  • 142 metres for a Dutch brigade of 1,000 men deployed shallow

Again a lot of variation in there. The median value is 72 metres, so lets go with that. That is much less than 300 to 600 metres. Even the maximum (142 metres) is much less than 300 to 600.

Observations and conclusions

I agree the scale is wrong. Distorted. It is deliberately distorted. When I wrote my earlier Twilight of the Sun King I was more obsessive about ground scale. But my co-author Andrew Coleby observed that Twilight is quite arthritic in its movement. He liked it. But, to be honest, I don’t enjoy it as a game because of this. I wanted Tilly’s Very Bad Day to be different. To be more open and free flowing. So I stretched the movement rates. However as soon as I did that I had to adjust the ranges. The long ranges are just a mechanism to ensure defending units get a shot in before the other bloke charges. That is all. It is a definite design decision on scale that won’t appeal to some.

Looking at historical brigade widths, my ranges are bad but not too bad. At least for me. If a brigade is 72 m wide then I’m letting pistols shoot at 72m and arquebus / musket at 144 metre. Okay, this is outrageous for pistols which basically shot at point blank range. But for arquebus/muskets they are generous but not terrible. Of course if all brigades are 142 metres wide, then it is starting to get silly.

But luckily I can explain away these generous distances. Actually Doctor Phalanx does it for me in his post on Distortion of ranges in Grand Tactical wargame rules. The good doctor suggests “that it might be useful to say that a model base represents the ‘operational centre of gravity’ of a brigade and that it may be assumed that troops actually come into closer proximity than the physical bases suggest.” He is quite right. During the period sub-units were assumed to be moving flexibly relative to the parent body. So my assumption is that for a horse brigade, the squadrons can ride out to shoot at enemy. Similarly for pike+shot where the musketeers of these units can move semi-independently of the pikes. Ditto for shot units, which probably had little internal cohesion. In other words, the whole unit doesn’t have to move closer because it is assumed sub-units do so to allow them to shoot.


Thanks to Chris Helm for his thought provoking suggestions and questions. Keep them coming Chris.

My last observation is in response to something else Chris Helm said. He suggested the distance distortion is Bath Tubbing. Personally I don’t think so. At least not as I understand the concept. I want a brigade to act like a brigade and I think Tilly’s Very Bad Day achieves that. If you catch my units acting like battalions then I’d like to know about it. In fact it is much easier to simulate a brigade in this period than a battalion/squadron. Brigades are kind of static blobs. But if I were modelling a squadron/battalion then I’d have to let them form up in all sorts of odd shapes: Shot to front of the pike; shot to rear; shot to left; shot to right; shot to left and right; and probably others. All of that is hidden inside one of my brigade units.

Where to get Tilly’s Very Bad Day

Tilly’s Very Bad Day is available for Download (PDF).


Doctor Phalanx’s Distortion of ranges in Grand Tactical wargame rules

Gush, G. (1975). Renaissance Armies 1480-1650. Patrick Stephens.

Guthrie, W. P. (2002). Battles of the Thirty Years War: From White Mountain to Nordlingen, 1618-1635. Greenwood Press.

Roberts, K. (2010). Pike and Shot Tactics 1590-1660 [Elite 179]. Osprey.

1 thought on “Musing on distance distortion in Tilly’s Very Bad Day”

  1. Hi Steven, Chris Helm here. Wow, what can I say?

    Well, firstly, what a great parry and counter. That’s a really well considered examination of the “question” I raised about “bath-tubbing”. So much so that I wonder whether I should just recant, which would at least be in character for the period in which Tilly is set.

    Even if I don’t turn completely apostate, I should definitely admit that it looks like I made an error of judgement in claiming that, “the unit is depicting a brigade, with a likely frontage somewhere between 400 and 800 paces”. I certainly can’t find any fault with your research or your reasoning. You definitely present a solid argument that the likely upper limit on the width of a brigade in Tilly is almost certainly no more than 400 paces. In my defence I can only claim, apart from age, that I’m right in the middle of a War of the Spanish Succession project that will use your Twilight of the Sun King rules. These use a frontage of 800 paces** for a 2000 man brigade deployed shallow, albeit on the assumption of a somewhat shallower file depth within its consituent battalions. Consistent with that, Horse, Foot & Guns (HFG) by Phil Barker assumes a 400 pace frontage for a WSS brigade deployed in depth (and I play a lot of HFG). So I had a seemingly resonable pair of numbers in my head at the time of writing. Maybe its time for me to sanity check those too?

    On the other hand your own calculations suggest that we should probably take brigade frontage for Tilly as somewhere around the 200 to 250 pace mark, assuming that the majority of brigades are deploying three or four Dutch style, small battalions deployed in depth but with roughly battalion sized gaps. So small arms range in the game of twice brigade frontage (though eminently playable in terms of a mechanism) still looks implausible. That is unless we can somehow justify it by employing a fudge, vis the unit model as a “centre of gravity” of a mass (or swarm) of troops. You point to Bloody Big Battles as a well respected rule set that definitely has the same issue, if such it is, of “distorted ranges” and which uses that same fudge to rationalise the apparent discrepancy. Having played BBB I have to say that the argument didn’t help me. Nevertheless, despite my discomfort with the range distortion, I thoroughly enjoyed playing BBB (it really is a great rule set) and would use it again. And absolutely the same applies to Tilly.

    So maybe this is a long winded way to say that I think the distortion is still real but nothing like as severe as I originally claimed. It’s a function of a set of mechanisms that work well as a whole so I don’t think there’s any need to try to rationalise the it away.

    The bottom line, which I’ll happily restate publicly here, is that we’ve really enjoyed the games we’ve played. The rules are really straightforward to use and uncomplicated but yield an exciting game that has plausible outcomes at both the unit and army level and also presents the players with lots of challenging decisions to make. There are some very neat mechanisms too, particularly: the use of -1D6 for lack of support to rear to encourage historical deployments; the cascading loss of resolve due to commander losses and routs; the simple determination of army break point. Also, the diagrams with explanations and the designer’s notes are very, very helpful. In fact these might be the only set of rules, besides DBA, for which I’ve always been able to resolve a query by carefully re-reading the text. That alone is an outstanding achievement.

    Lastly, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad that you’ve found the feedback we’ve offered helpful. I’ll certainly keep it coming. We’ve just recently run another couple of games, including one with another player who was new to the rules, so there’s a few more thoughts we can offer. I just haven’t had time to write them up yet.

    Best regards, Chris

    **I know you know that.


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