When it’s too big.
In my head I have a pretty clear definition of a skirmish game. It’s the same one I’ve been using ever since I started gaming, more than 30 years ago. It’s not a term that I made up myself, but a term I learned from the gamers I played with when I was small. As I grew older, it seemed that this was the norm, but in recent years the term is increasingly used to describe games I don’t recognise as such.
Part of this is, I think, a combination of a desire by companies to both sell “skirmish” games, and also to sell more miniatures. In this way the definition of what constitutes a specific type of game is stretched, just like the size of the miniatures that are used in them. In both cases the change is understandable as well as unhelpful.
So I thought that I’d talk a bit about what I mean when I say something is a skirmish game. This doesn’t mean that I’m right, just that this is a view that’s been consistent for a long time, and which I can’t see a good reason to change. Feel free to disagree :)
To start with, I think we can all agree that a skirmish is a small game rather than a large one. The real question is how small is small? The answer here is related to an article I keep forgetting to write for this blog, but is basically about how many different things you want to control in a game. For the sake of argument, I’d say 6-12 models is optimal. Much less than that and you risk losing to a single lucky dice roll; much more and you start having too much to worry about. Of course, the turn structure and other rules of the game you’re playing impact the accuracy of these numbers, but overall, in most games, they hold true.
However, size isn’t really my key defining point. For me, the essential defining difference of a skirmish game is that the models act individually. In my head, if a game uses squads of models that invariably act as a group, then it’s not a skirmish game. The only occasional exceptions to this would be weapon teams and vehicle crews which are really individuals, but are forced to act as a pair because of their job.
As an aside, it’s important to note here that skirmish games and historical skirmishes aren’t the same thing. Skirmish in military history terms is both poorly defined and variable in size.
The confusion in what a skirmish game might be comes when we have games that aren’t big, but use groups of miniatures. These might represent skirmishes in a historical sense, and be too small for (mass) battle games. This size of game allows the manufacturer to sell more models to someone by upping the size of game they can play, and also allows a gamer to take part in bigger games even if he can’t find space for a whole battle game. It’s not that this is a bad idea for a game per se, merely that the term used to describe it is confusing.
When I was small this confusion never seemed to arise. You either played small skirmish games or big battles. The in-between size was an oddity I don’t recall seeing much. And, as we’ve collectively carried on using the two terms that existed back then, this new middle ground has had to be crowbarred into one of them, even though it no longer really fits either end well.
Where I’ve got to in my head is that we simply need a new term for this middle ground. Skirmish games are, for me, individual model games, and as a designer that’s a very useful and clear distinction so I’m going to keep it. Mass battles are played on larger tables, typically 6×4 or larger. They use armies that are numerically large because they are arranged in units and need to fill that larger space. That too seems relatively clear, especially if you use the size of table as a defining point (possibly proportionate to the miniature scale).
So, if skirmish is very small, and mass battles are large, what word fits the centre ground?
Well large skirmish is a bit lame, and not distinctive enough for my taste. A surf of the thesaurus brings up nothing useful. I pondered the idea of something like grand tactical as it sounds good even if the definition is off, but discarded it in the end. Currently, I’m undecided. My best suggestion is to use qualifiers of battle. As this middle ground is really a small battle rather than a big skirmish (as it has squads), it makes sense to be related to that. And, if the big games on the bigger tables are mass battles, then maybe the middle ground was a different type of battle. Perhaps close battle would work. Close as in zoomed into a smaller area, and also because this area means you get to conflict quickly so you’re physically close.
So, in order of increasing size: skirmish > close battle > mass battle? I might try this for a while. What do you guys think?