Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly, laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile. - Samuel Longhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Building Calamity - A Question of Proportions

I'm in the midst of finishing a couple of buildings for Calamity this week. I have shown off the progress on the Sarissa Railroad Station a bit and I have another one that is close to be finished as well which I'll show off when its done. I have had a couple of things kind of digging inside my head through this project. Originally I really only expected to have two or three buildings from each manufacturer and I would create a little town big enough for a shoot out or two. The whole  project has kind of taken on a life of its own at this point. I know longer have concerns that the buildings are going to look right with each other because I am realizing that your average gamer is going to sit down to play the game (what ever that may be) and have a good time whether the buildings match up or not, or whether the miniatures match up or not. If the board looks really good and the miniatures are painted then that's just a bonus. They don't care if one company's doors are the right height or if the windows have the proper number of panes in them. In the end if it looks good they will be happy with the board I stage my games on.

So its not so much a question of scale but of proportions. Do the proportions of the buildings and the details look right? I realize that this is kind of a vague and nebulous concept but a well designed building is pleasing to the eye, there are natural proportions out there that look right to us as human beings. I know that there are reasons why I am drawn more towards one company's western buildings than another or why I won't touch certain kits in a given line. Its not because they are out of scale (which, unless you are a model railroader, is ill-defined at best) its because their proportions aren't right, they are not pleasing to the eye. Even the simplest, run-down shack looks good if the proportions are right. Our perception of proportions is also affected by what we know or at least think we know. Most of our own basic architectural knowledge only comes from the places where we live and work, the proportions of that space affect how we view things.

An 8'ceiling is relatively standard in suburban homes in the US built during the 20th century. Granted ceiling heights have increased but more as a prestige thing as you find these in more expensive homes and not in your average everyday suburban tract house. Now the setting for Calamity is about 1870 - 1890, the exact date isn't really important, you will find that the ceiling height is typically 10'and often as high as 12'. Of course, this varies a lot from place to place but 10' is a reasonable standard to work with. This tends to give you a building that looks taller and narrower than what we are used to seeing. The proportions are off when you apply a modern sense of proportion to an old west building. This can be seen in the approach some manufacturers are taking when constructing their buildings, they are taking the proportions from today, and applying them to buildings that existed 100+ years ago and those proportions "look" wrong. And really it wouldn't take that much research to get things right.

I think the laser has taken some of the creativity out of the process of designing a building. A certain amount of laziness intrudes because its easy to modify and existing template for a building to create a second one after all there were standards weren't there? And the answer would be sort of. There really were not any building codes during this period at least in the west and then usually imposed after the first major fire swept through town leaving most of it a charred pile of ash. Except for hurry up affairs in boom towns buildings were built based on proportions, for instance the narrow end (not always the side, more often the front) of a building would be 1/3 of the length of the building. The dimensions would be determined based on this type of rule of proportion. So if you have a 30' length then your width will be 10' and the narrow end will contain the front entrance. With a 10' ceiling you will need taller windows which are going to be relatively narrow because of the width. This gives us that tall, narrow look. Again its a matter of proportions, if the proportions look right, then we have a good looking building, if the they are off, its going to feel a bit off kilter. The design process for the laser cutter means that if our basic core structure is off, then it will be off for every building design that we derive from it. Now, granted, this is also a matter of taste, what looks good to me may well not look good to you. Which brings us back to our kits, there are just kits that proportionately look "wrong". As a gaming piece they are fine, no one but me is likely to notice. However, I'm far more likely to put effort into a building that looks "right" than one that looks "wrong". A little research even just looking at pictures would go a long way in making buildings look right. Through out the standard building template and create each building fresh and new rather than modifying the details a little bit (although to be honest if you have a template that has nailed the proportions then I have no objection to it being used to create 3 or 4 similar looking buildings by varying the details). 
Now I do realize that we only have so much space to work with. Let's take an example. You want a building that is 4" wide, based on my previous proportion it should be 12" long well, that's a lot of space on the table and then there is packaging and materials to consider as well. However, if we take we can still make it look right even if we don't have the length the proportion says we need. We can play with those dimensions to get a proportion that still looks "right". We may have to shorten the length, but we can play with the height and other details like windows and doors quite a bit and still get the "right" feel to the building.

Do a little research even if you are just looking at pictures. I have one really good reference book like this; The Great American Bars and Saloons by Kathy Weiser. There are lots of exterior pictures of some of these places and you can see the variety of buildings and construction styles that go into making them as well as the neighboring buildings. Great book I highly recommend it if you can find a copy. Check out the various books on buildings from the model railroad publishers, although a lot of these are focused on the 1950 period in the US, you can still find information on the wild west, a lot of designs, like  railroad stations didn't change that much.

So which manufacturer gets it (and remember this is my opinion, your opinion may be different, and that's okay)? 

Battle Flag:  For the most part have a really good look to them, I think they could be a bit narrower and a little longer but overall they look right on the table. Their exterior stairs look a bit clunky, but I think that's more a factor of those stairs being proportioned to that bases we put our miniatures on. I really like their big hotel, it just looks right.

Sarissa Precision: To my eye the folks at Sarissa have pretty much nailed the proportions of their buildings. Unfortunately, I think they have lost some of their creativity because after they established the core template they produce 5 kits from that template with minor variations. I think they really need to sit down and address the details again, but their proportions are spot on. I think I like their small and large heroic buildings the best.

Knuckleduster/Tri-City Laser: These buildings just look short and squat to me and I feel like everyone will be ducking their head on the inside. If they increased the height by an inch I think all of their buildings would look a lot better. I think I like the hotel the best, but please write some assembly instructions.

Aetherworks: Much like Battle Flag, I really like these buildings but they could be a bit narrower and longer and that would improve their appearance a lot. They look great on the table though. I'm hoping that they will be reworking their two-story kits to add a second story floor. I have only built the the brick building so far so its hard to give an opinion on what looks best.

Gamecraft Minatures: These are kind of hit and miss. Overall I think these need to be a bit narrower over all. Some buildings look really good, especially their two story buildings and others just make me shudder, like the large corner saloon. These are really meant to be terrain pieces and take some extra work to get a workable interior going.

I know there are a couple of other manufacturers out there that I haven't purchased yet. One of those I keep looking at and wanting to buy but can't pull the trigger, its probably because the proportions really look off to me. There is another company who should have kits on the way to me shortly and a new offering coming in April for the Dead Man's Hand rules from Great Escape Games. I'm eager to see those buildings and to see who is making them.


  1. Interesting review and informations!
    Honesty, for me, it's more intuitive and I focus generally on the painting work! (like you know!)
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Painting can go a long way in hiding all manner of things. A nice paint job would could certainly draw the eye away from proportions that might be off.