Saturday 18 April 2015

Game Design #43: "Skirmish" Wargaming Means so Many Things

"Skirmish" is an increasingly crowded genre.  But the term "skirmish" can mean almost anything.  Whilst a skirmish just means a smaller battle (with wildly varying definitions of "small")...

Skirmish Wargaming is often defined as a figure for each soldier - i.e. a 1:1 ratio.

But under that we could call Warhammer 40K a skirmish game - and I think it passed beyond that quite a while ago.  Heck, under that definition Warhammer Fantasy could be a skirmish game.  For me, WFB is a mass battle/regiment style game.

Infinity is skirmish.  It has ~10 minis that activate independently.

Mordhiem/Necromunda is about pitched at the 10-15 mini level.  It has  models which activate separately. It pretty much defined skirmish.

LOTR:SBG is skirmish. It often exceeds 50 minis - which activate simultaneously but can be moved independently or in groups.  I'd definitely rate it as skirmish.

In The Sword & the Flame, units are 20-man infantry, 12-man cavalry, but minis are 1:1. I certainly wouldn't call that skirmish though.

I mean, Ambush Alley is supposed to be a platoon-level or what I'd call a "small unit" wargame - minis are grouped together as fireteams or 3-5, or larger squads.  But minis are 1:1 so is it a skirmish wargame?

Is skirmish where one figure is a unique unit? I.e. each mini can operate independently (i.e. actions, stats etc are separate) of every other mini and is not part of a fixed "group" or unit.

Why do you care?

Well, I think there are quite a few different types of skirmish, with rather different design requirements.  Calling them all "skirmish" games is a bit confusing, especially when they have a different focus. I'm going to make an arbitrary ruling and say...

Skirmish - i.e. 1 mini = 1 soldier, but each model is activated and moved separately

Small Unit - i.e. 1 mini = 1 soldier, but models are activated and moved around in small groups (fireteams, squads)

.... as I noticed games tend to be either designed for activation with groups or individual units.  It has implications for reaction systems - does an individual respond to a group move; or a group to an individual move?

I think I'm interested in a hybrid of the two -  one that could handle minis moving around independently, but also allows units to be moved in groups.  I think the problem here is it is difficult to make a system that does not favour either group or individual activations, but makes them both equally valuable - i.e. advantageous under different circumstances. LOTR blurred the distinctions well - models could be independently maneuvered but there were advantages to grouping them up within range of a hero.  However the SIDE A MOVE/SIDE B MOVE, SIDE A SHOOT/SIDE B SHOOT style activation is a lot simpler and less dynamic than a lot of current systems.

Heck, you could probably subdivide "skirmish" skirmish into the "semi-RPG" - typically a party of 5-10 with lots of unique stats and skills, and often wound tracking.   

So what does a "skirmish" game mean to you?

Anyway, while I typed this some other thoughts pertaining to skirmish games came to mind:

Another thought it the "fixed unit size" in so many wargames. In Warmachine (admittedly fantasy) it's always 6 or 10.  In fantasy RPGs four is the magic number.  In games like Bolt Action, platoons always seem to be at full strength.  Even in places like modern Afghanistan, where we can airlift people in and out relatively freely, squads and fireteams are not always at full strength.  Far less so on the Eastern Front in 1945. I wonder why more rules don't have randomized unit strength?

Often heroes are simply "attached" to a unit, providing them with bonuses or extra attacks, like a glorified power-up.  Other times they charge around soloing dragons by themselves, with so many "wounds" and "attacks" they are basically a one-man unit all on their own.   TFL with their "Big Men" - inspiring individuals who affect activation - have more realistic heroes.  

Which is another gripe. If someone is "heroic" or a "leader" it does not mean they can take three wounds each of which would fell an ordinary man, or be capable of wrestling a Balrog to the ground despite being a 4' high dwarf.  Personally I think this is a good place for the dreaded "Saving Throw" or perhaps a "Re-roll" - to represent the cinematic narrow escapes or lucky hits.  Just because they're heroic or a leader does not correlate to superhuman strength, size or endurance.  

Although LOTR did do the "three wounds" thing and had more than it's fair share of wackily overpowered heroes, I think they were on the right track - Fate (allowing "saves" from injury), Might (allowing heroic feats and rallying followers) and Will (magic or resistence thereto) were in a finite supply.  A hero could push their luck, but only so far. 


  1. You make a good point - for me I think a skirmish game is one where individual soldiers are activated and given orders. If you are rivals a squad together as a group even though the models are separate that is different.

  2. To me, it means each figure can fire individually and have some degree of autonomy.

    40K 2nd edition is still a skirmish to me, because, while my gits are grouped into units, I might leave the heavy weapons guy in place, move another guy, a third guy throws a grenade etc.

    By 3rd edition, it's no longer a skirmish game to me, as the unit moves or stands, the unit fires (at one target) etc.

    The fixed unit thing is something I intend to tackle hard when I get to do a ww2 version of NSIS/NEIS.
    Stargrunt actually had this licked years back: You start at full strength but depending on how battle worn you are, roll a D6, D8 or D10 for each man, with 1's being missing.

    1. Actually, since 6th edition movement has been done by the model, so an infantry model that doesn't move can still fire a Heavy Weapon to full effect, for example. Likewise saving throws are on a model-by-model basis. And then there's all the rules for splitting fire...

  3. IHMO Skirmish is a type of wargame there, in assumptions, the abilities of a single models are more important than abilities of the units.

  4. In my opinion, skirmish games have this characteristics:

    -5-20 minis per side maximum.
    -Intended for smaller tables although playable in bigger. (60-90cm x 60-90cm tipically)
    -Each mini can move and operate by himself
    -The focus is on how you use each mini and his skills rather on only tactical positioning of units.

  5. I'm interested in the rumours that WHFB is going to get a skirmish version.

    Since GW now defines itself as a "seller of collectible miniatures" rather than a games company, this makes sense: a way to move a smaller volume of more expensive miniatures, and a gateway into their larger battle games.

    Like Warmachine's model, I think - with unit cards in the box instead of codexes.

  6. MacavityandMycroft7 May 2015 at 08:56

    Can't think of a better way to get you opinion, hopefully you read this.

    I've been checking out "This is Not a Test" and am close to buying. It seems to check a lot of the boxes that you've pointed out are helpful in designing a good game. i'm a little leery of the ranged attack rules, but it definitely would add 'decision points' like crazy. Have you any opinion? They have basic rule concepts on their site.

    1. They seem to have plenty of info out there.

      The d10+stat vs TN is one I'm using for my home-brew modern-fantasy set. The keep-initiative-until you fail activation looks good (as used in SoBH and Warmaster etc).

      Look quite good. Though I'm curious as to where you'd source enough post apoc models from. Maybe Dark Age?

    2. As for the shooting rules, the "we just mark hits and resolve them later" is perhaps more realistic but I always found it a bit of a nuisance (with tokens etc) in Tomorrow's War.

      If you're interested in that style of rules, may I recommend the (free) Infinity quick-start rules on the Corvus Belli website? They're only a few pages, and handle post-apoc/sci fi/modern quite nicely.

  7. MacavityandMycroft8 May 2015 at 07:26

    I will check them out. I've got Star Wars minis, some Necromunda gangs, and Skrulls and A.I.M agents for a brief foray into HeroClix, so I'm always looking for non-specific sci- fi settings! Thanks!

  8. Skirmish games IMO can be character driven or character-centred. It doesnt matter how fleshed out the characters are, but it is important that every man counts.

    My examples from hollywood, how I Would like it to be:
    A heroic squad vs dozens of alien monsters (Aliens)
    Some soldiers, a few of them better trained, and some civilians or ragged allies vs the evil hordes assissted by machines of destruction (James Ryan village battle, Endor Bunker battle in Star Wars)
    A hero and his freinds vs the dark horde (fantasy variant, i.e. Conan the Barbarian, maybe also typical westerns like Rio Bravo pr of course the seven samurai)

    Just some ideas during breakfeast:)

  9. Thanks you for another useful article. I'm slowly and surely getting through the list of them, as part of researching design considerations for my own game system. They've proved invaluable.

    In relation to the issue of heroic characters having multiple wounds, I'm weighing up a lot of alternative options for making them more survivable, but it's a tough one I find. I'm leaning towards giving them 2 wounds, because I'm finding you can only give them limited survivability with re-rolls. I try and justify extra wounds by imagining them as sacrificial shields, inbuilt life support systems, or the hero avoiding the killing blow through luck or their extraordinary reactions,will to fight on, etc. Anything other than depicting them actually being twice or three times more physically durable than the soldiers they command, which obviously defies physics, and somewhat ruins game immersion. Unless the hero in question is actually of greater size than an average member of its species (e.g. Ork Nobs in contrast with regular Orks) in which case them being more durable is actually justified.