“Your July column mentions the regular hexagon tessellation as ‘so familiar to bees and users of bathrooms.’ Perhaps you are not aware of another common use of this tessellation, that of compartmentalizing game maps, particularly what are called wargames or military simulations”.
John E. Koontz
Have you ever heard of the hept, or the hendec?
So how come the hexagon seems to be the only geometric shape that has acquired a nickname?
Well, the hex has become a very familiar shape indeed, because it is quite useful and widely used — in science, architecture, design… and gaming. There are good reasons for that.
No need to dig into the depths of your board game collection to find hexes. Hexagonal tiles, and the many options their six sides offer, are one thing that Catan, Keyflower, Suburbia, Eclipse, Mage Knight, Archipelago, Dominant Species or Hive all have in common. Hexagons have been a part of so many Euro-style, American-style or abstract games that we gamers barely notice them anymore.
It’s even more true for wargames. The hex has been such a key component of most conflict simulations’ core mechanics that it has become part of their identity. Movement, range, terrain, facing, line of sight are all determined using hexagon overlays — or hex grids — superimposed on all kinds of maps, at all scales.
Why the Hexagon?
As far as gaming is concerned the hexagon offers a few interesting characteristics. It eliminates the diagonal distorsions found on a square grid, and provides equal distances in every direction, which are crucial for accurate simulations. A mosaic of hexagons can cover a flat plane without any overlapping or gaps — it is called tesselation. But what I had not realized is that the hexagon is the regular shape with the most sides that can do so. Which means that the hex grid is the finest, richest, most even and scalable way of laying out terrain. So there.
Experts at Play
It seems that laying a hex grid over a game board was another of Charles S. Roberts‘s many innovative ideas. After all, he’s the one who introduced combat resolution tables, designed the first modern tabletop wargame and founded pioneer wargame publisher Avalon Hill. He was apparently inspired by an article he saw in a 1959 issue of Life magazine.
The article was about the RAND Corporation (for Research ANd Development), a US-based non-profit think thank founded in 1945, whose mission is to provide policy makers with the best possible scientific research, information and expertise. So in the early 1960s, in the middle of the Cold War, RAND was developing several military simulations, that were taking the form of large, serious wargames (there still is a Center for Gaming at RAND, by the way), played on maps with a hexagon grid overlay.
So in 1961 Roberts decided to transpose the hexagon grid he had seen used by RAND’s professional expert wargamers to the second edition of his Gettysburg.
Well, this second edition of Gettysburg turned out to be a commercial flop, so much so that the third edition reverted to the original square grid — but the hex grid had entered hobby wargaming to stay. Most wargames published after Gettysburg, by Avalon Hill or other publishers, adopted the hex grid, as did, later, most computer strategy and tactical combat games.
Hex or Square?
Is the hex grid superior to the square grid?
For most general games, it depends on the purpose: squares are still very much in use in many games, and not only in simpler ones like Carcassonne or Kingdomino. Besides chess, brain-burners such as The Great Zimbabwe or Food Chain Magnate, by Splotter Games, make exemplary use of square grids and yet are undeniably complex games.
For wargames, however, hexagons win over squares hands down, as they help keep simulations both realistic and playable. Hex and counters have in fact become a standard device — BoardGameGeek reports nearly 7,000 titles based on it, not counting a huge number of computer games — that both designers and players can use as a familiar starting point to explore any subject and time period.
But most of all, when you see a board made of hexagonal tiles, a hex grid over a game map, or hexagons in the logo of a publisher, a magazine or a Web site, you know instantly what they are about. The hex is one of the most widely recognized symbols not only of wargaming, but also of strategic thinking.
- A-star pathfinding on a Hexagon Grid, by Chris Katila
- Hexagonal Grids
- Wargames using square grids
- Hexagonal Grid Generator