Sunday, January 12, 2014

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short: The skirmish game (part un)

As I posted in my 2013 retrospective, I'm tending more towards skirmish games as the best focus for my limited energies and short attention span. I have rarely had the perseverance to build vast armies of figures. I'll get excited about a new period, spend lots (and lots) of money on rules, figures, books, and then see it all fizzle out. Much of this entropic approach to wargaming is due to my peculiar tastes in wargame subjects. Terra incognita, not to mention the generally bizarre, has always fascinated me. My friend Rick once opined that if someone made figures for medieval Lithuanian bat-dung hurlers, I'd be first in line to buy them. That's a fair cop, but since no one has made such figures (alas), the actual truth of it has yet to be tested. This taste for the arcane and unknown generally means that I'm forced to go it alone on projects. That's a sure sign of impending doom—unless the project is bite sized. Hence, skirmish gaming, the dim sum of the hobby.

In this first post of the series, I'll look at why I like skirmish gaming and what qualifies a game as a skirmish game.

Why skirmish games?
Skirmish gaming, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

More bang for the buck - Since I find it difficult to actually finish big projects, they are inherently wasteful enterprises. Faced with the prospect of painting several 24-figure units just to get some skin in the game, I may complete one or two units. Most times, I fail even to do that. The garage (yes, that garage) is replete with boxes of ACW, AWI, Napoleonic, etc. figures that I will likely never paint—even though I find them hard to part with.

With a skirmish game, 24 figures individually mounted makes a sizable force. In fact, it can make two sizable forces since many skirmish games can be played with fewer than a dozen figures per side.

Better attention to detail - Because skirmish games require fewer figures overall, it's easier to take time painting them. Some of my best painting has been single figures that I lavished several hours on. This approach is a big departure from the assembly-line painting that I do for big-battle units. I'm a slow painter; when I want nicer detail on my figures, I'm slower still. Nevertheless, I've made great strides in the past week completing several figures that I've spent a bit more time with. Eight Roman triarii, eight velites, and eight Libyan javelinmen are nearly complete. Each constitutes a fearsome body of men in a skirmish game. For a big-battle game, they're not even a drop in the bucket.

Limited storage/schleppage - I've mentioned before that I drive a Nissan 350z. Nice car, but very limited hauling ability. Gone are the days that I can fill the trunk and passenger seats with stuff and drive off to host a game. Because skirmish games require so few figures and terrain, they are much more portable to gaming venues away from home, which is good since my schedule consists entirely of away games.

Also, because of the limited number of figures required, I can store whole skirmish armies in a single box or a few small boxes. Not only does it make them more portable, but easier to store, too. If I'm ever going to get the garage to stop taunting me, I'll need to reduce the footprint of my projects.

Damn the short attention span! Ahead full speed!  - Today I may be afire for ancient Carthaginians, but tomorrow someone may release those long-awaited medieval Lithuanian bat-dung hurlers. My reaction to such an event can be summed up thus: "Oooh, shiny." This reaction will kill a big project, but merely wound a skirmish game. If I'm painting four figures of Bratislavian left-handed fire-dart flingers (because more than four would be overkill in a skirmish game) and get sidetracked, that's still only four figures put on the back burner. I can easily come back to them when the winds blow my attention span, like a weather vane in a cyclone, back in the old direction. There is method to my madness.

Versatile as a boneless acrobat - Because figures for skirmish gaming are singly mounted, you don't have to fret about basing, de-basing, and re-basing when you switch rules sets. I know gamers who make rebasing figures a hobby within the hobby. I hate it, myself, and have an unfinished post I titled "As God is my witness, I will never rebase again!" I have actually rebased, however—and recently at that. I'm not a fanatic. But my rebasing has been in the direction of single mounting to 25mm x 30mm bases for foot and 25mm x 50mm for mounted. I adopted this for some current ancient/medieval projects because it works best for any skirmish system. I have other figures (e.g., WW2) that use the William Stewart Standard Size™ of 20mm x 25mm. Whatever the size of the individual bases, you can be pretty sure that figures you've painted and based for one skirmish system will be usable without modification to any other skirmish system. If not, follow Thoreau's advice and beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes—or in this case, rebasing.

Personality goes a long way - Individual figures allow for more personality in defining the force you play with. If the skirmish game has more detailed figure characteristics, you can put some ongoing interest in how well a certain figure does. Some skirmish games contain campaign systems that allow for figures to grow over time as they fight—and most importantly, survive—skirmish battles.

Most gamers have some units that provide fond memories of battles lost and won. I think that skirmish games, because they are individual figures, have more potential for being the stuff of legend. This is especially true if each figure used is painted to be unique in some way.

The nitty gritty of it
So, having professed my love for the genre, the following is a brief analysis on the types of skirmish games I've encountered and the various game engines and mechanics that distinguish skirmish games from big-battle games. The following points are what I see, in my quaintly myopic way, as the main things that can be used to identify skirmish rules and distinguish one set from another. I will refer to these aspects in following posts when I review skirmish rules for particular periods.

Type (To thine own self be true.) - While the sine qua non of skirmish gaming is a 1:1 representation of figures to men, it's not all that simple. I've noticed that "skirmish" games fall into one of three categories that I'll call True Skirmish, False Skirmish, and Quasi-False Skirmish (a.k.a. the bastard love-child of true and false skirmish).

True Skirmish rules treat each figure as if it were an autonomous entity. The figure moves, fights, takes morale, etc. by itself. It may be affected by what happens to its friends, but its actions and fate are solely its own. True Skirmish rules tend to be more complex in their mechanisms than the other two and as such usually require the fewest figures because each figure engages a player's attention as if it were a full unit.  A force for True Skirmish rules can be very diverse: A knight, two squires, a few mooks with pole-arms, and a crossbowman or two make for a reasonable game. Because they act alone, they don't need to be similarly armed, protected, motivated, etc.

False Skirmish rules require single figures to be organized in units, which are the basis for movement, combat, etc. Figures in the unit have no (or very limited) ability to act outside the unit. For this reason, units in False Skirmish rules have to be, generally, similar in all respects. When the unit shoots, all figures in the unit shoot as a group against a single target. When a unit moves, all figures in the unit move as a group. When the unit takes morale, all figures in the unit stand or run as a group. False Skirmish rules are false in the sense that the individual figure doesn't count; it merely adds its factors to the operation of the group. A False Skirmish game doesn't require that the representation be 1:1. Figure scale could be 1:5, for example, without losing the sense of the rules. Although figures in False Skirmish rules will almost always be mounted singly, it is possible to play with multi-figure bases and simply mark casualties on the base.

Quasi-False Skirmish rules are the result of a drunken one-night orgy between True and False Skirmish games. That's not to say that they're a bad thing. To the contrary, some Quasi-False Skirmish rules are very enjoyable. The essence of them is that while figures are organized into units, the units can contain figures with a variety of quality, equipment, motivation, hair styles and so forth. Units must still act together, however loosely, but the figures within the unit are more distinct from each other and capable of limited independent action.

Detail (What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!) - The qualities that define a figure, the "stats," can be very simple or very complex. How much detail goes into defining a figure is usually determined by the type of skirmish rules noted above.

True Skirmish rules tend to define a figure by a variety of qualities and skills, not unlike a character in a role-palying game. For example, a figure may be rated for stamina, weapons skill for each of the weapons he carries, agility, luck, strength, hygiene, etc. These ratings come into play as the figure acts. A high stamina rating, for example, may mean that the figure can fight or run for extended turns long after lesser beings tire. A high skill rating with a bow means that he can usually hit what he's aiming at. However, a high level of detail usually requires a roster to keep track of it all.

False Skirmish rules tends towards simpler definitions of the individual figure because the characteristics apply to the whole unit. The emphasis is on the average, so there's little to distinguish one figure from another. Characteristics of the unit are usually limited to things like weaponry, protection, and morale—which is essentially the same stats used for units in big battle games. The stats for units in False Skirmish rules are usually simple enough not to require keeping track of. They might simply be noted in some sort of play sheet for the game (Valerian's valiant velites of vexation: Javelin, short sword, shield, +2 morale, +6 halitosis).

Quasi-False Skirmish rules tend to define figures in a less-than-very-detailed way but not quite as uniform as the gray, drab lumpenproletariat defined in False Skirmish rules. Figures within a unit in Quasi-False Skirmish rules can vary from each other by weapons, protection, skill, courage, etc. but not by much. Quasi-False Skirmish rules may require rosters to keep track of characteristics, but it is often clear enough from the models themselves how they're armed etc.

Combat (Lay on, Macduff, and damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'-  Combat mechanics vary widely among skirmish rules. The simplest mechanic uses a single value for combat that is added to a die roll and compared to an opposing stand. Some rules may be similar but provide different values for close combat and shooting.

More complex mechanics may require multiple stages to determine what damage is done and who wins a combat round. For example, a round of close combat may require each combatant to roll to hit against a skill score and then, if a hit is made to factor in the strength score plus weapon value and compare the blow to the armor and agility of the figure taking the blow.

The result of combat can vary widely as well. A losing figure may be wounded, knocked down, pushed back, killed outright, or all of the above. Some rules allow figures to carry wounds, which slow them down in movement and combat, but make for great bragging rights if they survive ("Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars and say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'"). In many other rules a figure is either killed or not killed, but may be put at a disadvantage in some way.

Zone of control (If we meet, we shall not scape a brawl. For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.) - Given the free flow of individual figure stands around the table top in a skirmish game, it's important to note how well a set of rules limits a figure's ability to ignore opposing figures. It's absurd to assume that a non-phasing figure is glued in place. Absent rules for reaction, the figures must exert some kind of control over the near space around them and require opposing figures moving in that space to stop or attack, but not to move through unimpeded.

Command/control (He has no more directions in the true disciplines of the wars, look you, of the Roman disciplines, than is a puppy-dog.) - How players determine whom to move, when, and how much their figures can do is the essence of command/control. The differences here don't tend to fall into place by the type of skirmish rules. However, command/control systems that require a player to write orders for each figure tend to be found in True Skirmish games.

In most cases, there is some random element that determines the order of play. The more current systems tend to apply some kind of limiting factor to what a player's side can do rather than allow a player to move every figure however they want. For example, a player may need to dice for command points and can only do as much as his available command points allow.

Some games play in random order with figures or units activating by a chit-pull or similar, rather than alternating between one side's activations and then the other's.

Scalability (We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.) - Another significant factor in evaluating skirmish games is how well they scale beyond the one-off game between two players. I rarely game one-on-one, so being able to easily add more players into a game is an important consideration.

For the most part, skirmish games scale well and it's easy to incorporate multiple players on a side without too much awkwardness. However, there are a few holdouts and it is also worth noting that for some games, adding more players has an exponential effect on slowing things down.

What's to come
In my next post, I'll look at ancients and medieval skirmish rules.


  1. Agree on your assessment of differing skirmish rules, David. As you know I've played WAB - which can be classified as either false or quasi-false, I suppose. I've also played 1:1 skirmish, mostly WW2 stuff. I've found the more zero'd in the more complicated they can become - like Damond's Patrol. Some folks like this, but I'm into simply, fast-play rules. I still need to get in a game of Muskets & Tomahawks! Best, Dean

  2. Skirmish games also tend to need more terrain. Personally, I prefer non-skirmish (mass battle, if you prefer) games, but I don't like painting lots of troops either. Nowadays I go for only 12 figures in a unit or I play a DBA-ish game, where 2-4 figures on a base represents 1000's of men.

  3. Amount of terrain depends on the type of game, I think. WW2 games, for example, need more terrain because the focus is on fire combat where cover is a significant factor. For ancient/medieval games, cover is less an issue, but more terrain adds a lot of color.

    Because a skirmish game usually requires less space (3' x 3' or 4' x 4' is typical), it's easier to lavish more effort on terrain.