Even now, unbalanced as they are, Mordhiem and Necromunda tend to elicit positive nostalgia. There have been several attempts to capitalise on this, most recently through Empire of the Dead (itself a thinly disguised imitation of the Legends of the Old West rules which in turn were based on Mordhiem et al); I have personally revived Battle Companies for my LOTR forces.
But the best skirmish game of recent times is, arguably, Infinity. If the "Big Three" are Warhammer, Warmachine and Flames of War, then Infinity is part of the "next three" alongside games like Malifaux and those by Spartan Games.
Ariadna: low-tech Russian-Scottish faction; they have werewolves and heavy weaponry
Beautiful detailed models, with fluid, dynamic poses and crisp casting, Corvus Belli have set the benchmark for all other sci fi models. That said - not every sculpt will be loved by everyone - their newer models are noticeably better than their old ones - which are still not bad - but the difference is appreciable. Putting them together can be fiddly. Some factions have an anime aesthetic which does not appeal to everyone, but a sci fi game devoid of both skullz, scrollz and spiky bitz AND grimy post-apocalyptic wastelands gets the thumbs up from me. A starter box (with 6-7 models) is $40 and since teams seldom exceed 10 minis per side, you can expect to pay under $70 for a well-equipped "army." Seriously. Have a look at their website. If you don't find something you like, I'll refund the time you spent reading this paragraph.
PanO: a Appleseed anime-style mashup with armoured space knights - a hi tech shooty faction. This is a new release for this month
Very Shiny Rules
As the rules are free, there is no need to buy the rulebook. But most do anyway - as this is one of the most beautiful hardbacked rulebooks I have come across. Fantastic original art, beautiful photos - it's a coffee table book as much as it is a rules reference. Yes, it can be a bit hard to read at times, needs a better index system, has fluff mixed in with the rules, and sometimes stuff has been "lost in translation" (you're better off using the pdf simplified Starter Rules, mixed with the online wiki to begin with) but if you're not enjoying the fluff and shiny stuff, you're doing it wrong. The Human Sphere add-on is also well worth it. You don't need the rulebook - but you should get it anyway...
Infinity even has fluff videos! Production values, even in videos, are high
If the anime aesthetic isn't your thing, that's fine - only applies to 3 or 4 of the 7 factions
But the most revolutionary thing about the game is the rules. Whereas most sci fi game mechanics don't deviate far from 40K, Infinity tips them on their head. The first major change is the "order pool". In most games, each model gets one activation or "order." This is true of Infinity - but you can spend them however you like - activating the same model repeatedly if you wish. For example, seven models generates seven orders. However instead of activating each model once each, instead you could activate the same model seven times in a row. Or activate one model four times, and another model three times - you get the idea. Once your orders are all used up, it is your opponent's turn.
Yu Jing: Asian hi-tech conglomerate with lots of power-armour and, of course, ninjas, good in melee
The second major change is use of reactions or AROs. Every time a model activates every opponent in line of sight can react to him (usually by firing at him or dodging behind cover). This ensures the gameplay is non-stop. Both players roll a d20 in a "face to face" roll and the winner (who also must roll under his relevant stat - be it physical or shooting) gets to act first.
It's a little hard to get your head around the mechanics but Corvus Belli have made a series of great Utube videos which should help any newbie. The rules are actually quite simple - its more that they are so very different to the "norm."
There is a great series of tutorial videos explaining how the unusual mechanics work
Combat is very lethal; weapons fire 3-4 shot bursts and even a single shot is likely to kill. Heavy weapons can fire across the board. Good use of cover is critical to survive. Close combat is possible but unlikely - in sharp contrast to 40K where using the bolter rifle as a club is usually more effective than actually firing it.
There is a good choice of weapons but they share similar stats (i.e. a AP rifle, Multi-rifle, Viral rifle, and Combi-rifle all use the "rifle" range bands and rate of fire but simply differ in the type of ammo used) There are drones and robots, which act as both "pets" or can be autonomous; hackers who can seize control of power armour or mechs and turn their weapons on their allies - even redirecting guided missiles in flight: grenade launchers with superadhesive to stop foes "in their tracks"; tissue-shredding monofilament mines, chain rifles, cut-down MGs "spitfires", shotguns and flamethrowers as well as a range of exotic weaponry such as EMP devices, flash and electrical weapons.
Nomads: rebels of space, with lots of hackers, mutants and gun-toting space nuns.
Now with a Campaign System (Campaign Paradiso)
There are lots of fan-made scenarios but Infinity has been until now been more officially geared around the kill-em-all tournament mentality (in which it is surprisingly balanced). There has always been a clamour for a Mordhiem-esque system to gain experience and new equipment and skills. This is arriving in November, along with a complete new alien faction (the mysterious Tohaa) and 16 scenarios.
The new campaign book teaser....
...but not perfect
Infinity is not perfect. I feel that "rules creep" has been slowly bogging the game. More and more special rules, special equipment and "exceptions" proliferate with every new model. Infinity's boast is "it's not your list - it's you" - inferring that YOUR tactics and in-game choices rather than your army lists determines the victor. I think it is in danger of becoming "It's not your list - it's your memory" - i.e. inferring that your ability to memorize special rules and their interactions is the key to victory. The initial learning curve in Infinity is steep - but the proliferation of new rules are making it increasingly vertical. That said, things like camouflage and paratroops allow you to break through enemy defences and add a whole different dimension to the game. Not even your deployment zone is safe!
However if you have an iPad or similar device, the Infinity wiki has all rules cross-referenced in a very user-friendly way.
There are no vehicles in the game (although there seem to be placeholders in the rules for them); personally I think this is fine, as having tanks etc seems outside the scope of a game with usually less than 10 men per team. Instead there are TAGs and REMOTEs - small mechs and robots that wield heavy firepower such as missile launchers, flamethrowers and automatic cannon.
TAGs are powerful, agile mechs that support the special-forces teams
Finally, if you don't have lots of terrain, you might as well not bother. For me, this is the #1 issue with "getting into" Infinity. Generally, if you can see it, you can shoot it. There should never be more than a 4 to 8" gap between pieces cover unless you want to see your models die very fast. Tall buildings allow snipers and machinegunners to dominate. A player with a mentality of 3-6 terrain pieces per table (a la 40K) could see his force shot down from his opponent's deployment zone.
It's not insurmountable though - I made a cheap and cheerful terrain board in a weekend.
Combined Army: a mix of red faced angry warrior space monkeys and seed-spawned vicious shapeshifting alien killersTL:DR
Brilliant cinematic activation system and ability to react to opponents means it's "always your turn" - your models don't stand around like dummies waiting to be shot. Combat is lethal, and realistic use of cover is encouraged. A wide range of weapons and equipment means a huge toolbox of tactical choices. The game is relatively cheap ($40-70) to start and the rules and all lists are free. The game is well supported with a steady stream of new releases, Youtube guides, and friendly forums. The wiki is very useful if you have a mobile device. This is a game where player skill matters more than your "army list" and you are always involved in the gameplay.
However, remember for Infinity you need LOTS of cover. In fact, lack of terrain was the reason my Infinity models have sat dormant for so long. Special rules and equipment can be a bit confusing and frustrating (you tend to lose when meeting a new superweapon for the first time). The learning curve is steep, and rules could be better laid out.
Nonetheless: in-game skill > army list codex warriors; cheap intro cost; free rules and lists; cinematic gameplay; realistic cover and reactions; good support and community, wide range of exotic weapons and equipment, great sculpts, and not a gothic building, skull or scroll in sight.....
Recommended?: Definitely. With a new campaign system, the best skirmish game for sci fi just got soul. Get in now to avoid the rush.
Aleph: a "benevolent" AI that oversees humanity. Cyborgs, robots and sentient body-hopping AI ensure everyone "co operates"....
...OK, I admit, ever since Number Six from BSG, I've liked my cyborgs female...