Will Skirmish Dethrone Classic Wargames?

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Skirmish games seem to be on the rise… does this mean classic wargaming is falling?

There’s no question about the popularity of skirmish-level games these days. Whether it’s X-Wing or Infinity or smaller games like FrostGrave and Mantic’s various formats–even GW is reentering this arena with the release of Shadow War: Armageddon. There seems to be a lot of demand for fast and furious games you can play with just a few models.

And that’s not even mentioning the miniatures/board game hybrids you see–games like Imperial Assault, Deathwatch Overkill, even WarhammerQuest’s latest entries fall into that category, right alongside the recently announced Shadespire.

So what does all this mean for “Classic” Wargaming–where it takes you 2+ hours to play a game, and you have a whole army’s worth of plastic dudesmen taking the field–is that going away?

And if so, why?

There are a few theories out there about this–let’s take a look through some of them.

Rules

So this school of thought makes it all about game design and rules. Basically, the reason that skirmish and faster-paced style games do well is because they’re utilizing a better toolset to carry out their gameplay. The mechanics are a little more precise and better at getting people to the game. Instead of spending a day reading through the books and building an army, you just pick up a box and their cards and go.

Now there is a little weight to this theory in the form of Age of Sigmar. It’s arguably Fantasy but with a faster, “better” set of rules. It’s markedly easier to just pick up and play a game of AoS than it is, say, to grab ranks of your old dwarf grudgebearers and go to town. A turn takes up so much less time, but still feels like you’re accomplishing a lot–it’s almost got a skirmish mindset to the “grand strategy” framework–which is probably why people keep drawing comparisons between it and 8th Edition 40K.

Age of Sigmar “feels” like a modern game–and people want to play what’s new. Look at the ruleset for X-Wing–streamlined, with enough depth and complexity for players who want to dive deep (depending on how deep you go, there’s a whole separate game that’s just figuring out character cards. Even Rune Wars, the next big ranked combat game, bears more resemblance to X-Wing than to classic wargaming.

Kids These Days

Then again, maybe it’s just the culture. Maybe people don’t have the time or patience or attention span to play out a grand wargame because they’re too busy taking selfie sticks or getting participation trophies or being special snowflakes, or whatever it is that out-of-touch people think Millennials do. But there seems to be something there.

Take a look at video games–there’s been a huge shakeup there. People have more ready access to them, and look at how they’ve changed. Now anyone can just pick up a game and play for a few minutes any time they’re waiting in line at the grocery store, about to be seated in a restaurant, or just enjoying some you-time while pooping.

Whatever the case there’s a lot more “instant-gratification” available to people these days. And maybe it’s just that the games are a reflection of modern culture. And that’s why things that are either quick and dirty, or that have a little nostalgia to ’em sell like hotcakes. Now people’s minds are trained to expect something instantaneously–you only need to look at how many of the current most lucrative game companies

Economics

Man, playing a large-scale game is expensive. No arguing there. Skirmish type games, you can just buy a single box and be good to go–good to go for a while–but if you want to hop in on some 1,850 point ITC lists, you have to be prepared to shell out some serious clams.

If you can’t shell out the clams, my associates are gonna flex their mussels…

Maybe this is all a result of the economic recession, which hit people’s discretionary incomes pretty hard. America’s only recently been recovering from that–it’s possible we’re still seeing the far-reaching effects of it. After all, that certainly changed the shape of the Entertainment indusry, so what kind of effects might it have had on this hobby?

Maximizing Fun

The last one of these theories holds that people prefer shorter games because they’d like to play more of them. So like, if you have a 45-minute tactical skirmish game, you can play almost 5 games in the span it takes you to play one 2.5 hour game of 40K (or whatever your classic wargame of choice is).

Schedules

Finally there’s the bane of any gaming group’s existence–trying to schedule enough time with enough people in the same place. As time goes on, more and more these gamers are starting to have families of their own, or jobs that prevent them from dedicating hours and hours a day to playing a single game.

Add to that the hectic demands of a changing workplace and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s not that people have a hard time getting free–it’s that people have a hard time getting a certain spot free with nothing else to do. It’s why companies like Netflix are doing so well. Nobody has time to watch a TV show as it comes out–why do that when you can make your own schedule.

Skirmish games are a little like that–they’re like little pockets of gameplay you can try out without too much rigamarole.


Whatever the case, we’re still not left with any clear answers. As for me, personally, I think it’s a little of everything. After all, modern rules make  games in general a lot more accessible. The “barrier to entry” for many games is markedly lower. But I think that’s a trend we’re seeing in the classic style of wargaming as well as its Skirmish-borne cousins.

So now we come to you. Are Skirmish games ever really going to take down “classic” wargames? How will traditional wargaming look in the next few years. Will it be simpler, or do you think there’ll be a watershed moment a little ways down the line, where people learn to appreciate the depth and complexity offered by these rules?

I personally don’t know that “grand” wargames are going anywhere. Though I do think that the pressure from Skirmish games is necessarily going to change what classic wargames look and feel like when you play them.

What do you think? Does the rise of Skirmish spell the end for grand wargaming? Can we all just get along?

  • af

    A little of everything: economics, having fewer miniatures to buy and paint, tighter rules and shorter play time. I cannot devote a full afternoon to playing a single game where most of the time will be spent on setup or re-reading rules. Plus tons of unpainted minis are unappealing, and usually with that many minis, it’s difficult to paint them all. Also, the table space it takes to field a couple of large armies.

    That said, I think there are elegant wargame rules. It’s just that we’re used to the needlessly complicated and fiddly Warhammer rules, but even within GW there are awesome and tight rules that play fast with minimum fuss, such as Warmaster. Outside GW, you have cool rules such as DBA, Impetus, etc. And of course, Kings of War.

    Conversely, there are skirmish rules that are needlessly fiddly and take a lot of time. I haven’t tried them, but I’ve heard WW2 such as Disposable Heroes: Point Blank aren’t precisely *fast play*.

  • Nick Silver

    Grand battles are cool but reek of PC master race syndrome.

    We always complain about not having enough new blood but we have to accept, in the grim darkness of the future, there is only diversity…

  • carlisimo

    There will always be a wider audience for skirmish games than full-blown tabletop wargames, especially those that don’t involve modeling and painting. Those are a separate market.

    The ideal situation, I think, is to offer a skirmish game that gives you a force you can expand to a full game. Games Workshop is trying it with Age of Sigmar and now Shadow Wars, and you can argue that Kill Team tried it too (and Gorkamorka, before that). You pick up a skirmish game because you can play it right away, and then you realize you like painting models so you keep buying more – now you’ve got more than you need for a skirmish game and you want a way to use them. That’s why it’s a good move if GW makes 8th ed WH40k look more like 2nd edition, which worked well for games a little larger than skirmish.

    • Hagwert

      Well said, the idea that GW used to have of expecting kids and newbs to drop straight into buying and painting hundreds of miniatures and learning a rule book the size of a bible was insane . The ” Baby Steps ” approach you describe could have saved WHFB .

  • Heinz Fiction

    I don’t agree that skirmishes are generally faster and easier to get into. For example there is Infinity which insanely complex and takes months if not years to learn properly. On the other hand there are mass battle systems like Kings of War which is super easy to learn and can be played in less than 2 hours.

    The only real advantage skirmishes have is the low model count which results in less cash to spend and less time needed to paint the stuff.

    • NagaBaboon

      To be fair model count and starter cost are part of what creates a barrier to getting into a game, not just rules.

      Also infinity is a special exception, that has such a mind twisting level of depth that most skirmish games do not.

      • Heinz Fiction

        Yes, thats basically what I said.

  • Karru

    It’s a mix of many effects from both sides, the customers and the company. It is cheaper to produce small numbers of models so many companies that look into making their own rules usually go with skirmish games if they want to go with 28mm. On the other hand, it is also a smart move by companies as they can “overcharge” for their models since you only need “so few” of them. A good example of this is X-wing by FFG. Between 15-50€ per ship doesn’t sound bad if you think you “only” need a couple of them. Once you actually start to count how much you are spending since you might prefer getting all the cards and ships or even multiples of either one, you are suddenly spending about as much on that as you would on your regular 40k army for example.

    Then on the customer’s side, it’s the same thing. Many don’t either have the time to paint and assemble large quantities of models, so a game that offers them the opportunity to both with a handful of models is a welcome thing indeed. For others it’s the price. They want to play miniatures game, but don’t have the money to buy a “standard-sized” army as those might cost easily over 200+€ while a “standard” skirmish army can cost around 50-100€ depending on the game.

    Then you have the rules themselves. It is easier to balance out and make skirmish rules than it is to make large-scale game rules. They might also be easier to learn as there can be so little to learn. There are exceptions here, Infinity for example resembles your typical RPG rulebook than it does your average skirmish game rulebook.

    Finally, the support. Supporting a large-scale conflict game requires a lot of resources. You need to develop units and vehicles in large numbers. Meanwhile, a Skirmish game only needs a handful of models every few months for people to be happy.

    Overall, I don’t think that Skirmish games are taking over. They are currently just like Survival Games were and Battle Royale games are in the Early Access market. Many companies and people saw the massive success of FFG’s X-wing and thought “I could do better” and so we have seen dozens of Kickstarters come and go for these types of games. In a few years, depending on what GW, Mantic and Battlefront Miniatures manages to pull off, we might see a surge in large-scale conflict games instead.

  • matus

    I don’t think it’s just skirmish vs large scale games, but also fast pace vs complex rules. The new necromunda might be a skirmish, but it has a lot of the table look ups and opposed rolls and multiple stages of earlier games (not quite as many) while recent Mantic games, both skirmish and mass battle have the table free, limited rolls that keep the games quick. Looks like people like small (Armageddon), simple (Kings of War) or both (xwing, dragon Rampant) games, quite possibly because they are quick. It’s the large AND complex games that seem to be struggling.

    • af

      Agreed, large and complex is a bad combination.

      I’ve always wondered about Necromunda and Mordheim, which I’ve never played but I know they are fan favorites and well-loved by the community. I look at all the stats they have for a skirmish game and I shudder… do they really need that many stats? Wouldn’t it be wiser to have made them fast-play and streamlined? (Obviously I must be mistaken because, again, I know they are well-loved games!)

      • Matthew Pomeroy

        Well they are also creations of their day, there really was not a lot of “streamline” in those days, and the complexity made for good in depth immersion into what was happening, sure it could have been faster, but would it still have been the same experience?

      • euansmith

        I was really hoping that Shadow War was going to see some new, cool set of rules. Something elegant and streamlined and yet full of fun and colour. I was very disappointed to see them simply roll out the old rules with a few of the lumps and bumps knocked off.

        • Matthew Pomeroy

          was hoping for more as well.

          • euansmith

            “Hope leads to… yadda yadda yadda…”

            😉

            What I was really hoping for was that GW would use the LoTR Skirmish turn sequence, with Player One Moves, Player Two Moves, FIGHT!

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            well played sir.

          • Drpx

            As of Gathering Storm, hope apparently isn’t just a bit of cynical black humor anymore.

      • Heinz Fiction

        Don’t know about Mortheim but Necromunda is a little on the complicated side. They don’t really need all those stats but as rules were taken from WH40k 2nd edition they are there.
        Good thing is: they fit a skirmish scaled game much better than something like 40k

  • Brian Carraway

    For me, it is all about the time factor. I can play 3 games of xwing in the time it takes to play a single game of 40k. It’s the appeal of Age of Sigmar in that you get the best of both worlds, fast, easy to learn rules with grand battle volume.

  • Xodis

    Skirmish games will always have it easier when attracting a new crowd over the large battle systems, thats why having a skirmish game that leads into a full blown campaign style wargame is the best option.

    SW:A is a good start in getting the new players to invest, because its cheap(ish) and doesn’t require too much prep time. Its a good jumping off point so a player can see if they even like miniature games or the hobby aspect that comes with them. If they like them at that level than they will naturally move into the larger game at some point.

    • af

      I don’t know. I want a skirmish game to be its own game, designed from the ground up for what it does, and not be merely a starter for a larger game… Note that generally skirmish-scale and wargame-scale have opposing goals, so I don’t know that you can successfully evolve one into the other.

      • euansmith

        Mantic have kind of done that with Deadzone being rather different to Firefight. The fact that both games use the same minis and occur in the same fictional Universe allows for some cross-pollination between the games.

      • Xodis

        Oh, I completely agree. The Skirmish game should be a complete game on its own and not some half baked wanna be tutorial. If thats the case its not a natural push at all but an intentional one by the creators.

    • Ben_S

      It would be a good start for new players, if it were actually possible for them to buy it.

      • Xodis

        Im sure the rules will be out soon, GW recognizes the excitement it caused now.

  • Matthew Pomeroy

    I would think there is also an element of not wanting to “put down a bunch of models to just pick them back up again”. Skirmish games tend to make each individual model more important in the grand scheme than just as ranks of pieces to remove. If you spend as much on these models, and then paint and assemble (maybe even do conversions) you really dont want them to be just there for show. This is why I will not consider AoS skirmish, its just fantasy battle without formation.

    • euansmith

      “… you may want more but you really don’t need to…”

      😀 😀 😀 Stupid sexy Goritsi! (Though I’m more a Teknes man myself).

      You hit upon something that I find really draws me to skirmish games. If I paint up 12 dudes for Frostgrave, that is 12 individual units for me to maneuver, giving me twice the tactical choice of, say, six squads of 10 dudes in another game. Additionally, 12 individual dudes take up less tabletop real-estate than those six squads; allowing more room to maneuver.

      • Matthew Pomeroy

        which is also where more interesting tabletops can come into play, you are not trying to make sure there is room for formations to move through.

      • Matthew Pomeroy

        What colors do you paint your union workers? painting my sons evil pigs now.

        • euansmith

          Unhealthy flesh and drab armour; these are not pigs who see much sunlight. So grey undercoat with a black wash. Unhealthy flesh shade with purple on the elbows and noses. Brown trousers (the battle field is a frightening place). Metal highlights on weapons and armour. Brown wash over everything.

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            Nice, thanks!

  • Letters to words..

    This has been happening since the early 2000s as people grew up got families or became more involved with their jobs. On top of that the younger generations are used to instant gratification and don’t always want to wait for the “reward” of traditional gaming.

    Obviously this is shaped by the local community and how they foster their new players and what games get played . Also the rise of board games and geek culture is making the divide even bigger when separating the “big games ” from everything else .

    • af

      I agree with the first part (people growing up and having families and jobs), but I don’t think skirmish games have much to do with instant gratification :/ Miniature gaming is by definition *against* instant gratification; people who want that just play videogames…

    • Damon Sherman

      Yeah, I have to disagree with that statement. Anytime you complain about the younger generations you’re getting old don’t realize that young you was quite different from current you and just lime the kids you belittle.

      That aside, it’s really because they’re weren’t that many skirmish games, or competition to GW for the longest time back in the 2000’s.

      Despite that, my group loved Mordhiem more than most of GWS games back then too.

    • Damon Sherman
  • Earl Tower

    The key is the cost of putting together an extensive army. I remember playing Ancients and Warhammer fantasy back in the early 90s in college. As a college student, I could afford to put together several armies over time, and still have money left over to go out socializing. The cost just have become to prohibitive. I flinch at the cost now, and I’m a middle age man in the middle class demographic.

    Time is likely a part of it as well. Magic the Gathering took off because you could sit down for a game night or at a game convention event, and be done playing in under an hour.

  • Robert Meade

    The industry is doing well as a whole I think, you still see mass-battle games. Its just that now there are some very well made skirmish games like xwing, everyone can do their own thing and play exactly what they want.

    I like Skirmish as a very intense painter/modeller, i can no longer do an entire 40k force the way I like simply because it takes too much time. And i get bored doing only that one thing. Also, that type of game is just so much better suited to models that are all characters in their own right… i just hope that GW gets it that as a ‘model company’ they serve painters/modellers better by supporting skirmish gaming.

    But as a gamer, i like x-wing because I can get as competitive as i like with it and it is very engaging that way, without requiring too much reading and dedication.

    You have the same kind of thing going on in board gaming. There is definitely a move in the direction of easy-to-learn, medium-light board games that take an hour to play, more or less. But at the same time you still see a lot of the heavier board games coming out.

  • Marco Marantz

    40K started as a skirmish game. Skirmish games, IMHO are better…i just find them more fun. my gaming group just finished a kill team ‘tourney’ recently and we had a blast compared to normal sized games. 40K only turned into a wargame and large scale to sell more models. The ruleset is certainly not optimized for large scale.

    • Commissar Molotov

      Depends on your definition of “large scale.” 40K 2nd ed. generally had 30-50 infantry models and a few vehicles as a 2,000 point army. Is that “large scale?”

      • Marco Marantz

        No. In 2nd ed I think i had one rhino in a 1500-2000 point chaos list. It wasnt until 3rd ed that points basically halved but what i consider large scale are apocalypse games.

  • Matthew Pomeroy

    There is a place for games that take longer as well, There are times when I would like to sit back and play for an evening, and I wont choose a fast game for that. Sometimes a game can go too fast and not be very satisfying. On the same note if a game is just long for longs sake (like one side is clearly going to lose and nothing mechanical can change that) then its just wasting time too.

  • ChubToad

    Funny thing is, skirmish games do not cost less than actual war games. The expenditure related to skirmish is actually, I would say almost on par with war games. There are really few skirmish games that require small amount of investment. I’ve played X-Wing for example and really I ended up buying more than other war games I played, and the some.

    • Matthew Pomeroy

      but is that really needed or something you wanted to do? I bought every faction of Wrath of Kings but certainly didn’t need to. but even then, I have spent almost as much or more than my grudge bound throng cost.

      • ChubToad

        In the case of X Wing I guess it was, and still is. I mean, if not every skirmish game would not hold economically speaking. And FFG knows this. On had to buy the new ships if only for getting one copy of the new shiny (and often great) equipment card. You wanted to use one in every ship? Well, you get the idea.

    • NagaBaboon

      The difference is you don’t have to, I’ve spent a fortune on Malifaux but you could have a faction with a couple of leader options and enough models to mix it up as well as rules for about £100-£150

  • Michael Speth

    What makes X-Wing awesome:
    * Pre-painted Ships
    * Low entry cost
    * Great IP
    * Easy to learn rules
    * Hard to master rules
    * Rules are FREE
    * Rules are updated via FAQs which are also FREE
    * Battle size flexibility (3’x3′, 3’x6′, whatever you want)
    * Multiple Play Modes/Formats (Epic, Furball, Standard, missions, campaigns, etc)
    * Large Competitive Scene
    * Paintable minis

    Basically, X-Wing is a great overall tabletop game. If you enjoy big battles (IE Warhammer), than you can do that via the Epic format. Or create your own.

    See this pretty cool idea – the battle of endor
    https://youtu.be/g3Yw_ZvVGpI?list=PL5Se9HYNdfCOOdJiT3IaFBQSo3ZFscc5X

    I tend to think the Warhammer gaming model is out-dated. Having unpainted minis is a disadvantage in today’s culture. X-Wing gives players the ability to just purchase some great looking minis and play straight away.

    If you are an artist or just enjoy painting, you can do that too with the x-wing minis. Just see the x-wing reddit with lots of people posting daily on their repaints. The other really cool thing one can do with x-wing models is that you can add decals or only painting a very small part of the ship to make it your own. With Warhammer, you have to paint the whole thing.

    I have no interest in Warhammer or games like it. But I am dabbling in the X-Wing Epic format b/c I really like the look of the big ships. So far, I have done a 150 pt game and it was a blast. I’m not too sure I will do the 300 pt games b/c to me, the setup and take-down are too tedious. For me, I would rather play such a format via the PC (if FFG ever makes a digital game).

  • BloodAngel

    I agree that it’s because Millennials are too busy playing with their selfie sticks, getting participation trophies and being special snowflakes. He nailed the problem right on.

  • NagaBaboon

    I think there’s also an arguement for diversity, though that’s sort of covered by the fewer minis comment I suppose. I don’t put any less time or money into hobbying than I did when I played 40k, I just have more projects which keeps me more engaged, gives me more variety in gameplay so I never get at all bored of gameplay and gives me access to different communities.

  • NagaBaboon

    While true with many rulesets, I don’t think it’s impossible to make scaleable games, you just have to write them from the start with scalability in mind. DZC does it fantastically, AoS does it pretty well too for that matter.

    • af

      Wait, is AoS a proper epic-scale wargame (something with morale, formations, flanking, etc)? I thought it was a skirmish game. This is an honest question, by the way.

      • Morgrim

        Battleshock forms a similar sort of role to moral. I’m not sure what you’re meaning by formations; if you meaning sets of units that go together and grant advantages it certainly has that. If you’re meaning ranked units, then no.

        Flanking sort of involved. Positioning feels a little like a weird mix of 40k and Warmahordes? If you’re using the ‘measuring from the model’ variant of the rules, then facing can be a huge deal, because pivoting counts as movement. If you’re using the more common ‘measuring of the base’ variant it’s important for monsters and cavalry but not as much for troops. On the other hand, by not having ranks but using clever positioning you can do ‘shield wall’ tactics where you have two units attacking the same target, but the defensively weaker unit is effectively fighting over the shoulder of the defensively stronger one, and can’t be easily hit back until their bodyguards go down. Which is a historically well used tactic wargames rarely pull off.

  • AnomanderRake

    Skirmish is only going to dethrone classic wargames if classic wargames insist on throwing the concept of a ‘classic wargame’ under the bus by stapling skirmish mechanics to them. Whatever else you want to say about AoS replacing movement-by-block and attacks-by-rank with movement-by-model and Warmachine-style melee ranges basically requires the game to be played at smaller model counts to avoid needing to take all day to get anything done, and the slowest and most annoying part of playing 40k right now is directional wound allocation done in the name of making things more visually intuitive.

    Large-scale wargames getting rid of ease-of-play abstractions for fear of getting dethroned by skirmish wargames is going to kill large-scale wargames more cleanly than skirmish wargames will. Taking the route GW is trying and just releasing their own skirmish wargame using the same models is a much better-thought-out approach to the issue.

  • biokemnia

    I can had 3 theories that are right in my case and in my game club, that meet some of the threories above.

    1. The offers had just exploded these 10 last years, with the help of Kickstarter. Even 15 years ago when I was only aware of WHB and 40k , it was hard for me to focus on just one army. The price and the time, forced me to focus but I was constantly on the edge of buying a new army, changing my mind every month about what army to start. Now I’ve left the 2 bigs games of GW behind me, but I play Warmachine, X-wing, Infinity (but just tried, it’s too complex if it’s not your main game and can’t focus on it), Tanks, Warhammer Quest, Frostgrave, Dystopian Wars, Blood Bowl, Bolt Action, Shadow War Armagedon wait me at my post office at this moment, and I plan to start Firestorm Armada soon. I dont’s play all these games equaly, and I don’t have an army for eache one, that lead me to the point 2.

    2. It’s cheap (or at least not too expensive) and quickly painted to have a 2 player box or 2 faction starters and have them ready to make demo games to your friends, and maybe expend your 2 factions a bit. Lot’s of people are not against trying a new game, they juste don’t want to invest in each games that looks cool (not like their compulsive buyer friend… humm… me) but after 3 or 4 games… they go take a look at the other factions and sometimes buy one for them. I bought Tanks and made 2 small armies, A friend made the same for Dystopian War and after some games it appears that a lot of player in the club are interested in.

    3. I Like to play with painted minis. I like to paint minis. I think I will paint just for the pleasure even if I don’t have anyone to play with. I like to paint heroes, monsters, machines, etc. But troops… even paint a 10 man troop for warmachine is a pain in the @$$ for me so don’t talk to me about 40 skaven, space marines or necron anymore or I will hang myself.

  • bobrunnicles

    “where it takes you 2+ hours to play a game”

    Gee a whole two hours? For me I don’t consider a game a ‘long one’ until you are looking at 6+ hours lol. Thing is fast playing games have their place, sure, but there should always be opportunities to play larger more involved games too. It’s like the difference between going to McDonalds and having a really nice home cooked Sunday dinner – both get you fed and sometimes fast food is all you want, but an hour after the McDonalds you’re hungry again while part of the whole Sunday dinner experience is getting together, spending the time preparing it and then savoring the meal. I happen to like both depending on the circumstances 🙂

  • Commissar Molotov

    Terrain seems to become more important in skirmish games, whereas in the bigger games it’s more of an afterthought (and sometimes gets limited so that the vehicles and big units have “free reign” of the battlefield!)

    I’ve been enjoying doing some terrain-building for A:SW, and especially in figuring out how to make it easily transportable without making it flimsy.