03 June 2012

So many skirmish games, so little time

My rules library seem to constantly grow, and the main growth seem to include "skirmish games". My definition of skirmish games is something that includes a relative small amount of miniatures, something like 10 miniatures (not an exact number) and predominantly allow you to move single miniatures as opposed to units/platoons/armies in one go.

The very first pure "skirmish" game that I came into contact with was actually Lord of The Rings, back when the first book was released following the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie. In a way an interesting anecdote since I was introduced to Wargaming by playing both WH40k and WHFB many years ago.I had bought some Minas Tirith guards but never got around to play, blindsided by the "big brothers" from GW. Pure skirmish gaming is for me a rather new wargaming category, I swapped WHFB/WH40k for Secrets of the Third Reich, a platoon based game. In that game group I came into contact with Legends of the Old West and it became the first skirmish game that I bought and actually played.

I really liked the experience, the rules were very similar to LoTR though they included what I think is the most entertaining part of this kind of games - the after action phase. In the after action phase your characters level up, roll on D66 charts to check for wounds, buy new gear etc. It becomes a game within the game. Skirmish games are as such ideal for campaign gaming. And just like Necromunda and Mordheim had back then many games nowadays include the same core ideas and mechanics.

You build your starting band of adventurers, often based around a heroic character with powerful stats and abilities, supported by cannon fodder minions. You play small fights against other gangs and after each battle you roll to check what happened to your "killed" models and what new skills your survivors receive. The fun part of games like this is the progression, watching the rise and fall of individuals or whole gangs.

All but one skirmish game that I own use this concept, the odd man out is "Malifaux" which is a skirmish game but doesn't include any character development. Instead you are locked to unique models and play the game more like a non skirmish game where you buy "complete" units instead of watching your characters grow and evolve.

The skirmish games that I own include Strange Aeons, Gladiator, Legends of the old West, Brink of Battle, Malifaux. Disregarding Malifaux, the 4 remaining games follow the "skirmish game" formula very closely. One would think that these games cannibalize each other for attention.

To tell the truth they manage to feel and play differently enough to make them interesting as standalone products despite the similarities.

Gladiator from the now dead Warhammer Historical is a very nice albeit "beer & pretzels" weighed game. It offers a thematic feeling around the Gladiator subject, both in the way the rules are written and the campaign system which the games revolve around. This is perhaps the most simple of all skirmish games in my collection but I still love it. You don't have any magic or any supernatural abilities. Instead it does feel like regular guys bashing each other’s skulls to the cheers of an audience. The campaign is based on each player taking the role of a Lannista (Gladiator owner/trainer) and you trying to get the best Gladiator team (while your Gladiators want to survive long enough to be set free). I guess the unique part of this game beside the historical framework around Gladiatorial combat is the restricted fighting pit and almost complete lack of terrain. It makes for a very different experience since most other skirmish games are the total opposite - relatively large game table packed with terrain.

Brink of Battle breaks away from the formula to some extent while expanding on other areas within the formula at the same time. The game allows for a versatile historical gaming experience where you build pretty much any type of infantry ranging from ancient hoplites to modern warfare snipers. The game completely differs from any other of my skirmish games due to how the rules are written, use of D10 along with opposite rolls at all times provide a very intense experience where both players are highly involved at all times. Being able to use the same set of rules to represent the whole historical spectrum makes this set of rules your "go to" for generic historical gaming. The rules also rely on your own imagination when it comes to tell a story. There is no included campaign/scenario framework, only rules, stats and helpful information on how to build your troops. The campaign rules are also generic enough to fit all historical eras. But whether you want to play a campaign of French & Indian War skirmish where settlers fight against Huron raids or Napoleonic patrols clashing you can do that. If you have a vivid imagination, or interest in history you will easily come up with "fluff".

Legends of the Old West conveys a Western feel, mainly through themed scenarios, equipment and character profiles. Not being the most advanced skirmish game out of the bunch, it shares a lot with LoTR skirmish game as it is based upon the same kind of rules. Though I still like it and it was the first campaign game that I played a lot.

This leaves two games which are as close as you can get I think - at least at first glance. Empire of the Dead and Strange Aeons. Strange Aeons is set within a world of Lovecraftian mythos, Empire of the Dead is set within a Gothic Horror/Steam Punk "light" setting. Both games include the classic after action steps of experience, skill and ability increase, both games allow you to build a gang which is sent off on adventures fighting all kinds of freakish beasts.

However, Strange Aeons relies a lot more on the Lovecraftian details such as insanity and danger revolving around scary stuff. It also uses the idea of having 1 side playing heroes that advance over the course of the campaign, and the other side forming the opposition which is different and built from scratch in each game. The "bad guys" do not advance, it is instead a pulp adventure of heroes fighting for humanity in remote areas of hillbilly country. You find artifacts and map pieces during your games, which are used to unlock special characters for a couple of games or to unlock cool quests that offer great danger but also greater reward.

Empire of the Dead on the other hand is more of a competitive campaign kind of game where both players build their crews and then as the campaign progress the players see how their units evolve (or die). As such it is perhaps more akin to Mordheim. The other difference between SA and EotD is that EotD has different factions while SA has "good" and "bad guys". I think the upcoming "Kulten" release from Uncle Mike's will be a lot more similar to EotD as that game will be Strange Aeons in spirit but revolve around gangs of cults fighting each other and have both players evolve their units.

Empire of the Dead, as it plays with the competitive gangs and the way scenarios play out is also more similar in structure of gameplay to Malifaux which is also about gangs clashing in randomly generate territory over a specific goal. But where Malifaux is about using units with unique abilities in one off games and each side having different goals albeit both sides fight in the same area - Empire of the Dead pretty much forces you to be a lot more careful as EotD plays as a continuous campaign. While sacrificing someone in Malifaux is an end to achieve your  goals, getting someone killed in EotD does not bring them back in next game.

So do skirmish games cannibalize each other? Not really, I do try to buy games that appear "different enough" that is true. But even if the games share many features they are often written to convey a unique experience. These last years as my shelf space has shrunk away drastically I often look for games that allow me to recycle miniatures while providing a different experience.

As skirmish games are often easy to get into and accessible in many ways (require few miniatures to get started) it does result that you tend to buy quite a few. All games that I own are imo great. The reason why I play one game but not another has to do more with whom I currently know or play games with rather than me disliking a certain game. Sometime I buy a game for myself for which there is no apparent interest within my group - "Gladiator" is a game like that. I still enjoyed painting up the Gladiators and working on that project. With Gladiators painted up and arena built I can throw in a game whenever someone comes over if they are interested as I have all you need to play and don't require my opponent to bring anything. Besides, I'm always interested in checking out new rules if I fancy the theme or have at least a tiny interest in the subject.

I only wish I had more time to play them all!


  1. Thanks for the breakdown on the differences between the games.
    I can see the benefit of campaign based games if you are playing a regular opponent. But if you're just turning up at the club for a game with a random opponent you would have to start from scratch each time, which would remove a lot of the aspects you mention.
    If I played the same people regularly I'd give this a go but I think I'll stick with Malifaux.

  2. Malifaux is a much better choice for one off games at a club. Strange Aeons and Empire of the Dead both rely on you playing campaign games to make the most out of the rules and feel.

  3. I wish you'd review Chaos in Carpathia. I've been eyeing the thing for a long time, and I'd be interested in your opinion.

  4. I too have a gaming shelf that looks like yours, though the feel tends to change somewhat more slowly I think. I still have a bunch of board and counter wargames, and massed battle games too, but since the Lad has started to understand rules and play himself we have concentrated on skirmish games (and games with limited fig counts, like Blood Bowl and Space Hulk) where he can play without assistance.

    I also agree that skirmish games completely come into their own in a campaign setting. This doesn't mean I dont love (and own) many of the mentioned rulesets, but the most fun I have had in literally decades was the Viking Campaign 4 of us played last year. We developed characters, had interweaving scenarios, and played very differently than you do for one off type games. Of course, having a regular gaming gang is essential to this.

  5. I have gone off Malifaux for that exact reason (i.e. no campaign) - plus the zillion special rules which have spiralled out of control with each new release wave...

    @Wostry - http://deltavector.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/chaos-in-carpathia-rules-review.html
    I'm reviewing the more modern game "Fear and Faith" as well soon, as I await my EotD book. May I also suggest the $15 Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition which is a fantastic toolkit - it is a generic RPG that evolved from a skirmish game so it works as a minis game for all eras...

    Anatoli, have you ever come across the Song of Blades series? Great fun, immense customizability...

  6. Great article Alex! For me, designing the Campaign rules for Brink of Battle was the most fun part of the whole process.

    My Trauma Checks and subsequent injuries were a blast to make.

    In the Epic Heroes fantasy book we're currently working on, there will be rules for Quests, Building Your Own Fantasy World, and more detailed Campaigns. You'll be able to play anything from a Solo Monster to a Dungeon Party to a normal group of skirmishing warriors. We'll have some 'drop in' parts that are for those with less time to work on stuff, and of course all the do it yourself options we love.

    I'll keep you dialed in as we go.

  7. Legends of the Old West was always a good time for me and I still like to get a game of Malifaux in when I can. I will have to give Brink of Battle and Empire of the Dead a read through when I get the chance, have you ever tried Infinity?

  8. @Wostry Ferenc, I hope to play those rules sooner or later. They have been on my radar for some time - and I have the miniatures for it so it would be quite easy to get started. Maybe later this summer :-)

    @Paul, yeah for me there is little that beats the feeling of telling a story with your games. Following characters over a couple of games is a wonderful feeling. I tried to incorporate a campaign feel into Flames of War when I wrote my "September campaign" where each scenario was linked and the results mattered in future battles. It does add another dimension even to games that were not written for campaign wargaming to begin with.

    @evilleMonkeigh, yes the zillion special rules is wearing me down when I play Malifaux. Probably the single one thing that bothers me with that game. I never fully know how the enemy gang work, let alone hava a full understanding about every single special rule in my gang. I like the game and own the core rules and first expansion, but abandoned any attempt at keeping up. There is no end in sight and each new release just adds way too much new rules. Makes me wonder about the balance of the game and the factions.

    @Faust, that sounds really interesting. Certainly look forward to see that.

    @doom_of_the_people, LotoW is a solid fun game even if it is lightweight. I really like stuff like the "fanning" rules, and having easy rules that you can teach in just a few minutes and get going with a new player. It's one of those games that I would label as "portals into wargaming", you get familiar with wargaming and then move on to more advanced games after a while. I've had some really fun campaigns with my friend Calle playing LotoW.

  9. Infinity is going down the same path. It started as a game which hugely tactical but now so many special rules are creeping in, the first time you meet a new special rule, you lose.

    I reckon Warmachine uses that approach - i.e. so many special rules, it is so imbalanced it is balanced i.e. each faction has so many combos it comes down to player skill at remembering them that determines the victor. SO substitute "memorising rules" skill for tactical skill, and the "best player" will usually win...

  10. @evilleMonkeigh,

    Sorry forgot to answer your other question, no I have not played SoB&H though I heard it is a nice game. A friend plays it but I have never seen it IRL.

    I've seen Infinity and read a little about it. What keeps me away is the "Anime" looking miniatures and units. I would be more interested in trying out "Mercs" which seems to be pretty much the same kind of game but with a more "realistic" / near future approach.

    What you commented on so "imbalanced that it becomes balanced" is actually quite clever haha, and I think you are right. Games with hundreds of special rules and where each miniature has 5 skills, 3 powers, and 2 abilities just creates this chaos which will indeed balance itself out in the end one way or the other.

    I'm actually very interested in trying out Wyrd's other creation, the "Puppet Wars" boardgame. I honestly think Wyrd should slow down with Malifaux the skirmish game and explore the Malifaux universe into other directions such as boardgames and RPG's. A lot of their ideas which at the moment feel crammed into the skirmish game would probably feel more at home in other type of games.

  11. Great write up also, several of my favorites are there!

    Legends of the Old West, Legends of the High Seas and Gladiator are all great games. Shame GW closed the doors but I have the books and most at a good price or found as PDFs now. Each game was not perfect but was a good balance of fun.

    Strange Aeons has been amazing, very simple yet has alot of levels of complexity to it. If you are not on Lead Adventures Forums you should join, the community is growing and I just finished my contest for Stange Aeons game reports and many people produced some kick ass stuff. I am trying to get most of my stuff done also.

    I am also getting into Iron Ivan's stuff including Point Blank that is squad level skirmish WW2 games. I am very excited to give this a go as the pulp version may be on the list next...I have a buddy that is into Indiania Jones and with the Germans now we can have some crazy fun.

  12. Let me also recommend 7tv. I dig on skirmish games as well, and 7tv has the benefit of being highly adaptable to a wide variety of settings.

  13. Infinity has a saying "it's not the game, it's you" - I found it rewards tactics and punishes stupidity more than any other game I have played. I you don't like the anime there is an Ariadne faction which more standard. The basic rules are a free dl to try, they have brilliant tutorial videos on Utube, and you need only about $50 of minis to start.

    Song of Blades would seem to be up your alley. You can use any random models you like, and the game 'engine' is adapted to a few eras. Probably the best skirmish game to play with friends - cinematic and fun. And it has a campaign/dungeoncrawling aspect to it.

  14. Good writeup, as always.
    Let me join the

    - call to test out the Chaos in Carpathia and let us know hos it compares to the other horror skirmish games,

    - recommendations to test the Ganesha Games' Song system; while not watertight/immune to min/maxing I think with your experience you might enjoy and appreciate the "sketchbook" approach to creating a warband, that lets you stat-up any mini you have

    - recommendation to try Infinity. If anime style isn't you thing (it certainly isn't mine) check out some of the more "tame" factions like the mentioned Ariadna or maybe Haqqislam. While the artwork is quite anime, the minis are very realistic, even when decked out with some wilder gear. Ariadna however, pack wooden-stocked rifles, katyusha-armed farm equipment and laugh in the face of the likes of EMP weaponry (has no effect on their low-tech weaponry).
    I promise you however, that once you try the rules (much easier with the official demo version and helpful video tutorials), it will drastically change your outlook on the more classical turn structure and things like how cinematic or realistic the game feels. I'm going off on a fan-wagon here, but I absolutely adore how matches of Infinity feel like real firefights; short, intense and deadly. Stuff makes sense and you don't helplessly wait around for the other player to position his troops into advantageous spots in front of your dudes; if they can see the opponent move, they can shoot at him.

  15. Thanks for the feedback and tips guys, I will try to cover the games you have all mentioned as good as I can during the summer :-)

  16. Great comparison of various skirmish games. I can't afford it, but still *really* want to try out Empire of the Dead anyway!


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