The Rise (and fall?) of the Skirmish game

A little while ago I was driving home from another great multiplayer battle of WHFB with some fellow games. Whilst driving home I usually have 10-20 minutes on a bike, in the dark, to ponder the existance of life and other things light on the heart. I started to calculate the average number of WHFB battles that we play as a group over the year. Our vast gaming club (which in itself is a banned word) plays on average once or twice a month. Over the course of the last few years, the games we played most were by no contest WHFB and Mordheim. Two GW product but as far as size is concerned both at the far end of the spectrum. Where WHFB you typically control pretty large armies of 50-100 models or more, Mordheim instead focussing on small warbands, rarely exceeding 10 models a player! Otherwise known as the war-scale versus the skirmish game.

For some odd reason our club always seems to come back to these games. What is that about?

The Fantasy games and the other guys ...
To an outsider the wargaming community might seem like a huge bunch of nerds all addicted to the same plastic smell and paints, but nothing is further from the truth. Once you get into this community, you can see the thin line of seperation between the fantasy gamers and the historical wargamers. The former focussing on the fantasy and sci-fi themed strategic wargames that are almost purely played for sheer entertainment. Also, a lot of competition can be found here, where armybooks and rosters are generally exploited to the maximum in order to make sure victory is yours. Some gamesystems allow this happen, others are somewhat more strict but all in all it has proven to be rather difficult to create a totally balanced game.
On the other end, the wargamers usually try to have fun and stick as much as they can to reality back then. Heck, try to explain to a napoleonic fanatic why you have painted all the uniforms orange and he will probably pull out on of the many historic documents to prove you wrong. Furthermore, the target audience for these games has almost double the age of the regularfantasy wargamers. Although you might come across several age 50+ fantasy gamers, there are only a handfull of age 20- historical wargamers. Or as a friend of mine put it nicely, "I am not yet old enough to succesfully pick a favorite war/era". Said friend only passed 40 by a couple of years, so he is being excused for that.

As our members are mostly young people (average age about 35?), maybe we have not yet come to the age that changes everything. So far, the fantasy games are still winning this battle (no pun intended).

On a side note, Flames of War is slowly but surely getting a firm grip on the community with 2,5 players and rising.

Birth of the Skirmish game
To see the scale of the game in a better perspective, let us first hop back in time, to about the year 2003. At that time, fantasy wargaming was divided into two camps. 90%+ of the gamers played WHFB (6th) edition and 10% was played by other gamers who thought that WHFB was to restricted/to overpowered/to expensive/to cartoony (pick your falvour). Collectively these gamers played a lot of games, of which not a single one was effectively able to combat GW's position on that market. Other miniature companies were mostly not that professional or perhaps did not deliver both miniatures AND rules, something that GW did from the very start. Although a small percent of these miniatures certainly looked the part, since you weren't able to use them in a supplement game meant that they were basically great addons for painters, but not so much for gamers. It didn't help either that at the same time, GW had the tournament restriction of having no more than 20% of your miniatures from other companies than GW.
However, out of the blue people were introduced by USA-based Privateer Press. They introduced a fantasy skirmish variant of WHFB known as Hordes. It's 40K-alike steampunk version was called Warmachine and released almost simultaniously.

Now, by this time people had heard of skirmish games and round bases (Confrontation, necromunda, etc.) were nothing new, for the first time since a long while there was a competative, miniature-and-rules-combined game released by a bunch of people with some experience in the field that not only worked suprisingly well, but also looked the part! I fell for the marketing people straight away and bought myself a "protectorate of menoth" starter box. Back then, 2 or 3 fellow wargamers were also tricked into buying the greatest thing in existence since sliced bread. Fast-forward 6 months and I have found myself playing a single game of warmachine and about 3 of fantasy, including a small tournament.
Was the game dull? No chance!
Did we lack the miniatures? Nope, we all had starter kits at least.
Rules? Present!
Too complicated? Not a chance.

And yet somehow we never got to play beyond that one game. There was something about it that did not feal right, for a lack of better term. It didn't help either that almost no one back then in our community seemed to have an interest in Warmachine/Hordes, even though (which is brilliant in my opinion) the game systems are interchangable! Conclusion: Playing a great is only fun if you actually have an opponent or 2 to play against.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, about 2011 or 2012 I'd say. Arjan attended some of us on the fair known as Crsis, which is held in november in Antwerp on a yearly basis. A rather large area filled with miniature companies of all ends of the spectrum, ranging from wild west 35 MM skirmish games to 6 MM scale epic battles with huge armies. The first time we arrived there it was all quite impressive, but it only took off the year after. Now most area's we're from have a shop that sells GW material within a 30 minute or less drive. This is almost never the case for the games we started to try out. What if ... we can play this samurai game rulesystem we found online for only 5$ using actual samurai miniatures? What if ... we can find victorian steampunk scientists for Chaos in Carpathia? What if ... we want more tanks for our Flames of War army without paying the huge shipment costs? Crisis provided an answer to all of these questions. People started making lists and whatnot to before going to crisis hoping to actually find what they required from a broad selection of salesmen and gamesystems. Even sole miniature companies saw their profit double once we passed by the stands.
This remarkable event almost single handendly made us try out a wild variaty of games. Though most games were really fresh and fun (In her manjesty's name AND Chaos in Carpathia come to mind), we kept falling back to the one thing we

played over and over; mordheim.

By the way, this is a small list of games that have passed the voting desk at some or other point, but did not quite make it with the majority of the gamers, in no particular order:
  • Wild West Exodus
  • Infinity
  • Malifaux
  • Necromunda
  • Bushido
  • Kings of War
  • Godslayer
  • X-wing
  • Warmachine/Hordes
  • Dystopian (Wars/Legions)
  • Wolsung

Maybe it's because the majority of our community has a strong interest in WHFB/Mordheim or perhaps a general dislike in one or more of the other games that up until this present day, we still mainly see WHFB and Mordheim appear on game nights.

Ah well, can't say we didn't try :)

9TH edition and future
Currently we are on the verge of a change in the warhammer universe like no other. The new edition is beckoning and rumors are spreading effectively faster that the black plague back in the day. No one will know what the future will bring, but most of the community agrees on one thing; marketing is lacking from GW side. Rumors on round bases, skirmish style fighting and simplefying the army variant by a lot have made us all the more curious on that GW will bring out. A succesfull edition or failure? Epic battles or small scale skirmishing? Good rules or very open to interpretation?

We'll probably only be able to tell once the ruleset comes out, but you can rest assured that our community is going to play it at least once and (if we don't like it) very much fall back to a very well known game..... WHFB previous edition. :)

Finishing off this monologue I would like to invite the other community members to give their suggestions on the games to play in the near future. Something most of us, if not all, can agree on. Which by the way is a near impossible task.


  1. If you build a warhammer (fantasy or 40K) army, you will certainly be able to play with it over a longer period of time. If one of the other guys quits, there will be others to play with. So it's a save investment of time and money.

    Picking up a game there are a couple of things that should appeal:
    Miniatures, setting, background and rules. In all the discussions we've had in our group it's hard to find someone for whom all the 4 buckets of a particular game clicks as well.

    Another thing is; with a limited amount of time available as a grown-up where do I put my time into? Again everyone in the group is into warhammer, so you'll always be able to have a game of it.

    That said I do think it's a bit of shame. I find that if I compare the amount of time, effort and money needed to build a warhammer variant army, you can easily make warbands for multiple skirmish games. Also as a hobbyist first, what do you enjoy more? Building and painting the three back ranks of a unit for warhammer, or really putting all your skill into that single skirmish miniature?

    Interesting topic for a discussion. [insert thumbs up]

  2. As a rather old member of our not-to-be-named-club club I certainly feel more and more attracted to the historic side of wargaming. On the other hand, there are lot's of other genre's and universes that tempt me into buying/playing! Star wars (X-wing, armada), Steampunk (IHMN), what-if's (a very british civil war) are all one-click-away...

    Time (and even money :-) is a scarce resource. And Skirmish games do require less miniatures. However, both skirmish and 'strategic' games both require scenery, and the production time of good scenery reduces the difference in the total-time-to-get-a-game-up-and-running between skirmish and 'normal' games significantly.

    IMHO the scenery used in skirmish games tends to be more complex (multiple levels of buildings/mountaints etc.) and of more influence on gameplay. In normal tabletop games 'abstract' features work most of the time (though a nicely decorated table is highly recommended!)...

    And to respond to Ludo's question: At this moment my 'plans' for building/playing wargames until next Crisis, are somewhere along these lines:
    * Flames of War (sort of getting the hang of it, prefer it over whfb)
    * Warhammer T&T/Mordheim (clubbing, more a social thing)
    * Flames of War (Scenery, extra armies, learning to airbrush)
    * WHFB (battle repairs, old stock for the fun/hell of it)
    Quite consistent and focused :-)
    But the question marks are open for discussion!

  3. Interesting assessment and very true. Skirmish games do require more terrain and that is definately something you should factor into the overall costs of playing a game.

    That said; playing on a table full of terrain is something I enjoy immensely. And building terrain is something I enjoy maybe more than building up an army (especially the painting bit)

    The lasercut terrain companies are popping up like mushrooms, and though I was sceptical at first about the material. In general I do find the mdf terrain to be very fun to work with. So it's quite easy to have some good looking terrain on the table quickly.

  4. I've been looking at getting me some Viking mini's lately so how old does that make me? Am I in the same league as Arjan now? :P

    Seriously if I were to start another army/game then Vikings would interest me most (haven't got a clue what ruleset would be cool though).

    BTW great post Ludo! The main reason why I have been so loyal to WHFB and Mordheim so far is the time and money already invested in it. Also I don't really like steampunk and scifi and that is what a lot of the alternative settings are all about...

  5. Uh oh... SAGA is coming our way... :-)

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