Friday, September 22, 2023

Skirmish gaming, how's that going' for ya?

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about my love for and redirection towards skirmish gaming. Someone may have read it. If it was you, thanks. Now you may be wondering how, after all this time, my skirmish gaming is going. Let me tell you: It goes well.

For all the reasons I elaborated (keyed to quotes from Shakespeare), saying ¡Adiós! to big-battle wargame rules and Oye cómo va to the tastier, more instantly gratifying dim-sum of the hobby, I've been able to get in a lot more gaming and have actually started and finished projects in less than a standard human lifetime.

The following sections highlight rules sets that have seen varying degrees of use over the last several years or which are prominent on my radar screen as incoming projects I want to pursue (of what is past, or passing, or to come).

The Rampancy (mere anarchy is loosed upon the world)

As ever, the "Rampant" family of rules by Daniel Mersey continues to be a staple of my wargaming experience. The rules are simple, elegant, and provide a great deal of variety for scenarios and army composition.

They're what I classified in my old blog post as false skirmish rules—not to deny them their glory, but to indicate that unlike true skirmish rules, figures don't act independently, but only together in units. Even leaders aren't separate figures, but rather joined in as part of the number in one unit.

The latest of the family is Xenos Rampant, which took me by surprise when it was released in December 2022. I had a large force by the end of January. By the end of May, I had two large collections that could be made into six 24-point detachments for two games that I hosted at our Enfilade! convention.

Lion Rampant spawned a lot of home-brew variants, two of which I produced: Quetzalcoatl Rampant and Crepusculum Imperii.

Kevin Smyth and I painted Aztecs, Conquistadors, and Tlaxcalans by the bucketload. I bought and painted a whole temple plaza and Kevin made some other nifty terrain.

Our last Quetzalcoatl Rampant games were the two games we ran for Enfilade! 2017: "Cornless in Xochimilco" and "I left my heart in Tenochtitlan."

True confession: I have never actually played the Crepusculum Imperii variant I wrote, though I understand that others (not in my area) have played them. I couldn't bring myself to rebase all the 3rd c. Romans I painted for our short-lived resurrection of WRG Ancients (I hate rebasing). I wound up selling them all. However, I'm painting 3rd c. Romans again for a Saga warband and I'm pretty sure I can extend them out to a CI army.

One fine variant that I've loved playing is Chariots Rampant, written by Pat Lowinger, who lives in these parts (Gig Harbor). They gave me the chance to build a Sumerian army. I'm kind of a fanboy for Sumerians and early Ancient Near East stuff.

I've only been able to play them twice against Scott Abbott and his redoubtable Mycenaeans. The plague forestalled any further rematches, but the time is nigh to rise and fight again.

The Rampancy also led me into painting my one and only fantasy army, which I made for Dragon Rampant, but have also used for Saga: Age of Magic.

One regret from the earlier days of Rampancy is that I sold my Medieval Spanish. They were my first actual Lion Rampant army and morphed without effort into my first Saga warband as well for Saga: Age of Crusades.

For more exciting fanboy blather about my love of Rampancy, see my 2017 post The Year of Living Rampantly.

Saga (a king is but a foolish labourer who wastes his blood to be another's dream)

Saga was a double experience for me. I started playing in 2018 when there was a group of players at The (former) Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA. Then COVID came and John closed for business in October of 2020. I didn't figure I'd have much opportunity to play again, but then a group in Tacoma popped up and Saga was back on the menu.

Even then, if it weren't for the serendipitous misfortune of being laid off in May, I might still not have gotten back into Saga. As it was, I was able to take advantage of the twice-monthly (sometimes thrice) Saga game days at Silver King in Tacoma. Between May and August, I got in several games and managed to field three new armies that had been started way back when for other purposes, but which I found that with only a bit of effort could be Saga warbands.

Saga is mostly false skirmish rules, but not really quasi-false skirmish rules. I only hedge how I say it because Saga has heroes, who act as single figures. Mostly that's just the warlord, but some factions can have single heroes in addition to the big man (e.g., the Irish can have the warlord, two curaidh, and Ulf for a total of four heroes). Otherwise, units are from  4 to 12 figures in size.

With the return to Saga, I've expanded my collection to include figures for multiple factions: Welsh, Picts, Carthaginians, and Irish/Norse-Gaels. Additionally, I have unfinished/unstarted figures for several other factions: Late Romans, Byzantines, Dark Age Britons, Anglo-Danes/Anglo-Saxons, and Scots. I may be forgetting one and there may be more figures I can turn into Saga warbands still hidden in boxes in my garage of wonder and despair.

I've come to appreciate Saga the more I play it. Because of all the new warbands I've been fielding, I've never gotten to proficiency with any one. Most of us that play are in the same boat. Saga playing will decline for me since I've returned to the workforce and am therefore not able to game down in Tacoma on Wednesdays.

Gaming with the elephant god (what rough beast, its hour come round at last)

Playing Ganesha Games Song of Blades and Heroes—and its derivatives—has been a great deal of fun. I started playing SOBAH with my beloved 40mm Bronze Age Europeans lovingly sculpted by the late Jim Bowen of Monolith Designs/Graven Images fame, not to mention having painted a large number of figures that graced the pages of Wargames Illustrated in its heyday. The figures are a very good fit (but see Tribal below) and my enthusiasm for them spread to Troy Wold, who acquired his own collection—including Jim Bowen's personal collection of painted figures. I think that the largest single concentration of these figures in the world exists between me in Lynnwood, WA and Troy next door in Everett.

SOBAH is one of the few rules sets that fall into the category of true skirmish rules. Each figure performs 1, 2, or 3 actions, which are determined by rolling 1-3 dice for the figure and comparing the results against the figure's Quality (Q) rating. Die results that pass give one action, but if two or more die fail, your turn is over. The trick is to get as much done as you can without risking an abrupt end of your turn.

The rules are straightforward and easy to master at the basic level. It gets a bit more complicated when you add special characteristics to a figure or use certain skills.

SOBAH is the game engine that powers other sets of rules from Ganesha Games that we play:

Song of Drums and Tomahawks is based on the SOBAH engine. The rules are an adaptation by Mike Demana to represent Native American tribal warfare. The rules provide skills that are specific to the genre, which covers pre-colonial to Custer's last stand.

Flashing Blades is another variant that covers 16th to 18th c. skirmishes. It's perfect for swashbucklers and pirates. We played English Civil War with them early on and have played out a Three Musketeers game with them also usin Kevin Smyth's 40mm figures.

We also tried Flashing Blades with our Aztecs and Conquistadors.

Flying Lead is a variant for modern warfare. Kevin and I tried them for a couple games with our Gringo40s Vietnam War minis.

They could also work with the Xenos Rampant armies I have, all of which use single-mounted figures.

The Ganesha Games rules are easy to play and require only a few figures. They're a good place to start when you're just building a collection, but also a great set of rules to go back to often.

Even though the Ganesha rules are great for convention games with lots of new players (the basics are very easy to pick up), they work best between players who know the rules and design their own forces for use with them. All the subtleties and nuances that the rules provide are lost on people who just show up to push lead and therefore better left out.

Mortal Gods (and gather me into the artifice of eternity)

I love Mortal Gods, but haven't had the chance to play it since before the plague years. We were just starting to get some traction with it as a regular go-to for gaming. I was able to resurrect my Wargames Foundry Greeks, which had been languishing as unpainted or half-painted lead for more than a decade. I would like to get back to it, but the allure of Saga has ensorcelled the MG players of old and it may have to wait out Sagamania before it can get on the dance card again—unless some new New Thing™ comes along.

Mortal Gods is a bit hard to put neatly into one of my classifications. They're false skirmish rules, but single figures also play a part. The units are typically bought as groups of three, although heroes are bought as single figures. The only larger formation allowed is a phalanx of up to three hoplite groups. The play relies on unit cards with each group of three figures (or one figure for a hero) having its own card specifying its abilities. Combat is resolved with special funky dice. 

Typically, a force for MG is a single phalanx (three hoplite stands) plus heroes and psiloi.

It doesn't give the effect of huge lines of hoplites clashing, but for a skirmish game it works.

Honorable mention goes to Test of Honor, which I have but haven't played. It's the Samurai-based progenitor of Mortal Gods. The second edition of it came out just after Mortal Gods was released. I have the game, supplements and some figures (not painted), but there's been no big groundswell of enthusiasm for it 'round these parts. 

Further mention should go to Mortal Gods: Mythic.

It had to be that with all the rich mythology of the Classical Age, MG would have to account for it. The game plays much like the standard version only there are a larger number of hero types and the factions follow specific themes related to the gods. I have the supplement and all the cards, but it's in the same doldrums mentioned above. I have several Amazon figures from Lucid Eye's Ziggurat range. Mounted on 1" fender washers, I could use them for Mythic or any other rules (such as Tribal).

Even though the figures are used in threes, the larger stands are 3-hole sabots. Each figure is mounted on a 1" fender washer. 

I can easily use any Mortal Gods figures for any other skirmish game. Bill Stewart and Eric Donaldson have already repurposed their Mortal Gods figures as Saga warbands for Age of Alexander and Age of Hannibal.

Donnybrook (the ceremony of innocence is drowned)

I haven't played Donnybrook yet, but I bought the rules a few years ago and intend to get to using them at some point. The rules officially cover the period 1660 to 1760. However, it's easy to fudge them in either direction earlier or later. They're perfect for the late 17th c., which is a period I like very much and have done a lot of figures for using The Pikeman's Lament

They're false skirmish rules, except that characters act independently. Troops are rated as Recruit, Drilled, or Elite. Characters can be rated Hero. 

Building a force is done by spending force points for groups of figures based on their experience level and then arranging the figures into units. One force point buys the following:

  • 12 Recruits on foot or 9 mounted
  • 8 Drilled on foot or 6 mounted
  • 4 Elite on foot or 3 mounted
For every force point spent on the troops above, you get one special character of the same experience level. Special characters can be things like an officer, ensign, sergeant, or drummer. Most characters need to be attached to a unit, but may detach and attach to another unit during the game.

The forces you create are also governed by factions, such as Army, Tribal, Highlanders, Outlaws, etc. For each of these types there are different special characters available.

Each force has a free leader, who is a Hero.

A big Donnybrook game may be 8 force points. Depending on how you organize the force into units, you could have maybe 4-6 units with 8 characters and a leader.

Units can be 3-12 figures of any quality. For example, 12 Recruits bought for a single force point can be organized as four 3-figure units, three 4-figure units, two six-figure units, one 6-figure unit and two 3-figure units, a 5-figure unit and a 7-figure unit, etc. Bigger units are better because you throw more dice and can absorb more losses.

The quality of the troops determines the kind of dice they throw. 
  • Recruits throw D6s
  • Drilled throw D8s
  • Elites throw D10s
  • Heroes throw D12s
The standard target for a successful die result is 5+, so better quality troops throwing dice with more pips are likelier to succeed.

Having only read the rules, I have the impression that units can get shot/cut up very quickly. There are no saves for poor slobs in the open. Saves are limited to units in cover or, if in melee, units with armor (no armor saves for gunfire). This will drive most players to stick to hedges, walls, bushes, buildings, etc. I'm not sure that's quite the 17th c. way of doing things.

I also have a lot of figures for earlier periods that can be used for Donnybrook, such as 16th c. (using my 9 Years War Irish and English) and ECW/Thirty Years War. I could also do Italian Renaissance for that matter.

I've been picking up every Bloody Miniatures release that comes out (only about a dozen painted so far) with an eye to doing a smaller ECW skirmish game with them (smaller scale than The Pikeman's Lament). Donnybrook may fit the bill. 

Muskets & Tomahawks (they and I but lived where motley is worn)

I've only played a couple games of M&T using Mike Lombardy's minis (pictured here). They're fun and I've started (long ago) some forces of my own for them. M&T are false skirmish rules. The figures are organized as units and shoot, fight, take morale as a single entity. Losses of figures to the unit affect how well it continues to function, but there's no separate actions taken by single figures.

The second edition rules use D10s insead of D6s because the number of modifiers that could be applied exceeded the 1-6 range and you have to make other adjustments. It's a good idea, but I can't help but lament the abandonment of the D6. Fistful o' dice games using D6s have a particular style to them that a fistful o' D10s just can't aspire to.

I started a lot of Galloping Major figures for the French and Indian War, which can also be used for Song of Drums and Tomahawks and Donnybrook. I also picked up an army box of French for M&T that comes from Morth Star Miniatures. I just need to get the project prioritized. I have several figures in progress, but they'll been relegated to a drawer in the garage for a while now. 

Tribal (the blood-dimmed tide is loosed)

I've recently reviewed these rules, so there's not much more to add here. They currently command my short attention span. I've been playing with my beloved 40mm Bronze Age Europeans, but I have cavemen in the works and several other warband projects queued up.

Tribal are like Mortal Gods and Donnybrook in that they're false skirmish rules where units can be 5-figure formations and single figures (heroes) have a significant presence. Typically, more than half the units in a Tribal warband can be single figures.

Despite its name, Tribal isn't just for skirmishes between tribes of prehistoric or indigenous peoples. One of the first things that struck me is that the Saga warbands many of us have painted (especially the Dark Ages ones) can be easily repurposed as Tribal warbands. I've been eyeing my Saga Picts (they of many battles) as a prime candidate for doing double duty with Tribal. The primary consideration is having enough figures that are suitable as heroes.

Postscript: Pig Wars (too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart)

I was reminded that I left out Pig Wars, which is a serious omission because it was, I think, the first skirmish game I ever played. It is also, however, a game I haven't played since around the turn of the century. (It feels odd writing "turn of the century," but there it is.)

I first saw Pig Wars when it was set up in the common area of the computer wargame company SSI in the late 80s. My friend Rick worked there and since all the people there were avid wargamers, they had miniatures games set up for the off hours.

I didn't play it myself until the 90s when Charles Sharp talked it up among the group of us that met to play at American Eagles in Tacoma. I had a large number of Old Glory Picts and Dark Age Irish painted for it, with more Dark Age Britain stuff coming (Saxons and Arthurians).

For a while, Pig Wars was a going concern. I even wrote a Late Medieval Variant that we did Hundred Years War games with. The variant eventually found its way into the 4th edition of the rules that are available on Wargames Vault.

The Saga group in Tacoma revived Pig Wars for a game day in late August—an event I missed through the mixed blessing of gainful employment.

I think Pig Wars will return to our repertoire (and hopefully I'll have a chance to play it again). As with Tribal, the many single-based Dark Ages minis we have for Saga will seamlessly serve double-duty for chasing pigs, cows, geese, etc. 'round the Dark Age barnyards.

Historical note: The interval since the last time I played Pig Wars is evident in that the first two pictures above were taken by me using a 35mm digital SLR, which I have long since abandoned because the camera on my iPhone is infinitely better for taking pics of minis. The pics are probably 20 years old at least because they were taken in the apartment I lived in before purchasing Stately Chez Dave in beautiful formerly-bucolic Lynnwood, WA. However, as I think of it, they may have been taken by a 35mm film SLR because I have a note with the files that they were scanned from prints, which makes no sense if they were digital originals—not that making sense has ever been a criterium for my actions.

Post-Postrscript: Fistful of Lead (soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress)

I've had several recommendations for the Fistful of Lead skirmish rules, so I finally got a copy of the core rules from Wargame Vault.

As the title implies, the rules came into being as a western gunfight set, but subsequent variants as well as players' mods allowed the rules to be used for nearly everything. Wiley Games finally published a core set that players' can build on for their specific genre. As far as I know, it's only available as a PDF. There's a revised set of the original western gunfight rules available as a printed booklet.

I haven't played Fistful of Lead, but—because I have so many minis on single bases—there's nothing stopping me from giving them a go. Also, because Fistful of Lead are true skirmish rules, you only need a few figures (like, a fistful) to play.

So that's that so far (turning and turning in the widening gyre)

I'm sure I could say more, but I'm trying not to make every blog post as long and tedious as a Russian novel. Skirmish gaming has taken such a hold that I don't foresee ever going back to trying to build a traditional big-battle wargame force. Big-battle games tend to require specific multifigure basing that often renders the figures unuseable (or not easily useable) with other rules. Single-mounted figures provide full transferability between different sets of rules. Even the 3-2-1 basing that I've done for most of my "Rampant" armies is easily accommodated because they provide simple breakdowns and allow for reducing the group by single figures.


  1. Great breakdown; I've had a lot of fun with Dragon Rampant in the past, but I think like you I'm done with grand armies; I'll still putter away at my Oldhammer Orcs & Goblins army from time to time, but that's more art project/giving myself the army I dreamed of when I was a teen just starting out in wargaming with minimal disposable income.

    These days I'm playing the Fistful of Lead family of games from Wiley Games, along with Perilous Tales from Planetsmasher Games and Majestic 13, newly released from Snarling Badger games. You've whetted my appetite for prehistoric warfare, so both Lucid Eye's Savage Core rules and Tribal 2nd edition are on their way.

  2. Great write up of the various rules you've played or reviewed otherwise. Also and amazing collection of fantastic games and figures - the 2017 Quetzalcoatl Rampant game particularly impressive - surprised it didn't get Best of Show.

  3. Some fantastic looking collections and beautifully painted miniatures in there. Personally, I am still playing some "big battles" but I think my preference is for skirmish or "false skirmish" too, these days!

  4. An excellent write up David. There's a few sets here I want to have a play with, Donnybrook is a great set, I been champion them for a few years now. I just been to get my finger out and play a few more games.

  5. David, you forgot Pig Wars, which I also think is a super fun set of rules.

    1. It is, but I haven't played it in nearly 20 years.

  6. The Second Coming, Sailing to Byzantium, Easter 1916, the other I had to google. Excellent choices, and a great accompaniment to this fine read on your skirmishing ways. Long may the skirmishing - false or true - continue!

    Cheers, Aaron

    1. I knew someone woould recognize the quotes. Fergus and the Druid is less known, I think, but another great from Yeats.