Game Design Theory: When Is A Skirmish Not A Skirmish?

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?

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30 Responses to Game Design Theory: When Is A Skirmish Not A Skirmish?

  1. Ben says:

    To my mind, the demarcation between skirmish has always been that each mini represents one person (or monster or whatever) and they don’t rank up into a battle line. I consider both Warmachine and SAGA to be skirmish games. In recent years the ubiquity of low model count games has led me to start referring to those games as ‘large scale skirmish’ as people now think I mean only games with half a dozen minis aside if I just say ‘skirmish’.

    • Tyr says:

      Yeah, this. A skirmish is a game that is played with models in a skirmishing formation, ie, no closed battle lines etc. It can be anything from a small game with few, completely independent models, to something as large as 40k Apocalypse, provided the units are just a blob. Imo.

    • Teskal says:

      I do think the same. Skirmish is a battle between single units, but there could be hundreds of them on the table.
      It is not skirmish if the individual is not important anymore and they fight in lines and rows or similiar groups, which could be a fireteam, squad, platoon and more.

      Some Army sizes Battle Games have options for indiviual fights like Warhammer Fantasy had it.

      Some Skirmish Games offer to move and fight in teams like Wrath of Kings.

      Bolt Action is not a skirmish game for example, you have only teams of 2 or more persons. Not counting vehicles.

  2. Gareth Thorne says:

    Squad Size, Platoon Size, Company Size – works with recent real world based games, should work for sci-fi in near future and far future as well.

    • This is what I’ve heard used in other forums, too…

    • This is the ticket right here.

      The middle ground (Platoon) becomes the buffer. In games designed for smaller deployments where squads are individuals, having single Squads at the low end and platoons at the high end is the result. It naturally opens things up a little more where 3-20 models can be involved depending on scenario. The 6-12 figure is accurately stating the norm.

      In games designed for larger deployments where squads are moved and fired in group (but still in a loose, individualized manner), having platoons at the low end and entire companies at the high is the result. Model counts tend to then be 11-100, depending on army list and size of game desired.

  3. Willem-Jan (Hephesto) says:

    Thinking having qualifiers for a game rather than an all-encompasing term may be more useful for that middle ground, especially given how diverse the games in that space are. There’s everything in there from borderline rpg to squad / officer-based activation, not to mention how a lot of these games seem to cater just as well to 5-6 models a side or games where each player controls 20-30 models in small squads.

    In recent years it’s become tougher and tougher to explain a lot of games without immediately adding information on model count per side, activation method, phase sequence and surfaces area needed to play. Back in the day skirmish was pretty much anything Mordheim / Necromunda-sized, though those games in campaign mode could snowball for certain factions into that murky middle ground where their increased warband size would impact the overall game and could drift away from the skirmish feel for me.

    Personally I think of a skirmish game as something where each players handles 4 to 10-15 models max and where there is more individual model freedom than you’d encounter in more upscaled gaming experience. Though even that last one has blurred with the years with more and more game bringing squad or leader-based activation into skirmish games (even if only for the odd faction).

    Something that for me has always differentiated small from larger skirmish is ‘army progression’, It’s quite rare to see the level of profile, equipment and overall ‘warband’ composition be as dynamic and expansive as you see in the ‘small’ variant. These games seem to have a bigger element of book keeping, campaign-styled play and player driven narrative, while the larger variant are generally more focused on listbuilding, tactical maneuvering and overall army bonuses or re-rolls during campaign play.

  4. Ebenezar says:

    What about “Small battle”? It shows that you are talking about a battle but not in a massive scale.

  5. I like close battle. Mini or micro battle (as opposed to mass battle)?
    Or skirmish<combat<battle
    Or skirmish<conflict<battle

  6. mattadlard says:

    Its a odd oe and like Ben says, one has bee used to playing ‘Skirmish’ games that are one model one stat/special rule like Malifaux, the old Rogue Trader Small games, Warmachine. However we play larger games that compromise larger units that are part of larger games or battles and again these are considered Skirmish which is technically correct, as it is a battle that is part of the larger.

    It could be that we are looking at this from the wrong side, the Skirmish game could be the middle ground, so re-class smaller games as velitation scale.

  7. eriochrome says:

    I think most of the games function best when you are controlling 6-13 objects. Skirmish is when the vast majority of those objects are single models that move, act, and fight truly independently.

    If the objects are squads or teams (3-5 models) then it is probable your Close Battle is reasonable. When you get the objects as platoons and such with 10-30 models often then you are getting to Mass Battle.

    Lumping Mass Battle in with Ranked Up units pretty much puts everything after ACW into “Skirmish” regardless of how many models are used. That definition is more based on how the models are physically moved on the table than how the game is truly structured so is not the proper way in my opinion. The real issue is that in 28 mm on a 6*4 Mass Battle games sort of do force very tight units if you want any space for terrain and movement to occur,

    • mattadlard says:

      In regards to figure numbers 6-13 as stated before is a good number its effectively two units plus unit leaders/add-ons and a overall leader so allows for a small level fast play or original skirmish game, however its also a point to make that this is in regards to both historical and the sci-fi and fantasy. And that is where it can get tricky as sci-fi games using figures is often a lot less than fantasy or Historical that require loads.

  8. Ian says:

    Interesting discussion, which has been on my mind too recently.

    Breaking games down into groups you have:

    Small skirmish – where each model is operated on an individual bases ala Infinity, Pulp Alley, Frostgrave etc these can also be narrative led, close to rpg style games

    Larger Skirmish – small unit action, Warmachine, AoS, Saga and Lion Rampant seem to fit into this.

    Small Battle – large units in formation such as Kings of War, WHFB, Sharpe Practice etc

    Strategic battle – miniatures generally based with multiple miniatures per base.

    As you move up the scale games generally seem to get higher levels of abstraction in the rules, you also gain command and control element which reduces the players control over their troops.

  9. Orinoco says:

    What about ‘engagement’ rather than ‘close battle’?

  10. Thomas Cato says:

    For me it’s primarily a visual thing. When I read “mass battle” I expect lots of figures (really hundereds) and, if applicable, larger vehicles or monsters. The sort of thing that is more commonly played in 6mm, or those impressive really big games you sometimes see among historical gamers with enormous tables packed with napoleonic regiments. You don’t get that in fanatsy or sci-fi 28mm very often. The closest thing are probably the larger WH40K apocalypse games. Other than that, nobody really does mass battle.

    I can get with what you write for element-based games like Hordes of the Things, DBA or Fantasy rules, where multiple miniatures are glued to the same base and there obviously are no individuals. But a game where each side has a tank and 4-5 squads of 5 to 10 men each, who move individually within the bounds of a loose unit coherence limit, will never feel as a mass battle game to me.

  11. BHC says:

    This is coming from an armchair general who’s first foray into miniature wargaming was fielding Harlequin in 40K back in the late 80’s, so spoonful of salt, two pence, and what not.

    Skirmish, to me, is ideally about being focused on an elite squad. But that’s because of my background above. 🙂 Of course, my friend fielded two to three squads of space marines against my troop of harlequins, so it wasn’t unheard of for my guys to be outnumbered 3 to 1. Yet, that was fun (as was mowing down his troops) Later on, he upgraded to Terminators and it was more 1 to 1.

    Where else do I see this idea of a squad being the focus? Oh yes, Saving Private Ryan. There were epic battles around which the story-focal squad took part in, but mostly, it was about that one squad.

    Then there’s the grand epic war scale. It’s common to see (in movies, maybe because that’s what happens in real life) squadrons of planes represented by one single miniature. Armies represented by another single miniature. And you’d have combat more at the Axis and Allies or Risk scale. Or Diplomacy. Abstracting 100s or 1000s of real-life individuals into one single icon.

    Going from individuals/skirmish scale to grand epic scale is a tough transition, miniature-game-wise. On the computer, it’s easy to zoom out and direct things from a unit, formation, platoon, company, division, etc. level and I know there’s an urge to simulate that with game pieces. But things get fiddly if you need to move 100 miniatures at the same time to represent your army marching through. That and 28mm scale would require football stadiums to play, which isn’t feasible.

    So, that’s the quandry (I feel) that games like 40k-Epic and Warpath starts to hit… how to make moving a squad-at-a-time in 28mm scale feel right. Or do you just change the scale to 15mm or smaller, and call start calling them unit representations instead of individual representations.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, getting 2 squads of 10 troops to perform a proper pincer on a 6′ by 4′ dining table can be fun for the armchair tactician… but even that can get kinda stale after a while.

    • BHC says:

      ok, it’s going to bother me, so i’m going to be first to say “whose” not “who’s”… and later on, I totally ran out of steam with the “call start calling”… the extra ‘call’ is extra. 🙂 I’m sure I missed other mistakes, but hey, it’s a comment, not a term paper. 😛

      Also, my suggestion would be similar to Gareth’s above : Squad-level Skirmish, Platoon-level Engagement, Company-level Battle…

  12. Von says:

    I rather like the elegant distinction between the skirmish (all models are individual actors) and the battle (some models are in units and a unit is a single actor, i.e. they all move and shoot together). This would make Warmachine and Hordes an interesting corner case in that it’s skirmish when played in Mangled Metal/Tooth and Claw and battle the moment you add a unit – but given the way the game skews once you do start using units, I think it’s a useful distinction.

    For what it’s worth, Warmachine also categorises its games by size (you don’t hear the names given to the points levels very often, but they are there). A ‘duel’ is 15-25 points, a ‘skirmish’ 35-50, a ‘grand melee’ is 75-100. ‘War’ is 100 or more points with two or more battlegroups (a significant increase in the complexity of interactions and the power level of stuff on the table) and we hit ‘apocalypse’ once four or more battlegroups are on the table. To my mind the ‘skirmish’ part is wishful thinking; three or four units of six to fifteen models is not my idea of a skirmish game at all. Nevertheless, I wonder if any of these terms could be applicable.

    I do like the idea of describing Squad, Platoon and Company level games; that seems less contentious. Individual models are actors? Squad level. Models band into units but there are some individual actors left? Platoon. Models band into units which band into formations or battalions? Company. Sort the games not by the number of models but by how the models are organised into forces.

  13. Kevin says:

    I think the bigger question is why are you wasting time on this debate when we are all awaiting DZ:R beta rules to digest;-)

  14. Compel says:

    What about games like Mordherim, which was clearly a skirmish game but, it my memory is correct, the general henchmen / mooks operated in units of 3 models, that had to stay together 40k style.

    Dropzone Commander uses the terms skirmish, clash and battle for their game sizes. Although even its ‘skirmish’ is a mass battle sized game, being 10mm

    • James K says:

      Mordheim’s unit system only applied to equipment and experience – members of a unit all had the same gear and all levelled up together but they acted independently on the table.

      • theearthdragon says:

        This is correct. Mordheim did this to streamline force creation and make it easier to use plastic kits as part of your force versus everyone needing to be kit bashed like crazy.

        When the battle was on, they didn’t need to be anywhere near each other.

  15. Lugosi says:

    Tactical engagement?

  16. varagon says:

    I like the idea of using the word tactical skirmish or something similar. Tactical on it’s own would be nice and clean.

  17. blasterca says:

    I use *Tactical* or *Squad* for the go between. I’ve always thought of mass battles as more of a strategic game level than anything else. As so much goes into building/making your force list. Plus how much army placement means. With half the battle being *fought* before the game actually starts, that’s at least low level strategy gaming.

    In general, Tactical & Skirmish Level games are much more forgiving of army placement as you have double or more game turns to maneuver. So if you start out badly placed, you have time to get into a better position. Or even just a couple turns leeway to get into a superior position.

    With squad level gaming, with 3-5 normal/full sized squads or 5-10 half/smaller squads, a lot more of the game comes down to what you do with your forces during the game. That’s more tactical level gaming than strategic.

    & skirmish is anything where, generally, 1 mini equals one whole unit. Necromunda, Blood Bowl, Deadzone, Mars AttACKs, Dreadball, Warmachine/Hordes, etc.

  18. captainglen says:

    Why not just a “battle game”? Or “battle wargame”? Or even just “wargame”.

    So skirmish game < battle game / battle wargame /wargame < mass battle wargame.

    Keep it simple. Most Sci-Fi wargames are simply considered that, Sci-Fi wargames. Why add anything? Mantic have created the mantra of Mass Battle games. But if it's not a Mass Battle game, then surely it's a regular wargame. Or if it's too small to be a wargame, then it's a Skrimish game.

  19. theearthdragon says:

    I’m slightly worried for the outcome of Deadzone with these sorts of discussions. Are Mantic and Jake trying to make it a game in the middle ground? I don’t see why they are trying to re-invent the wheel, in particular when Jake worked on the beloved specilist games from GW, and should aim for level of scope. Those games naturally varied between the squad to a platoon sized game.

    Start off with 6-12, evolves to 10-20 as things are escalate. I feel like there are just gonna be things that have little business being there at this point like vehicles and the like. There is becoming too much emphasis (it seems) in Deadzone trying to obey “Warpath” force org rules. The point of Deadzone should be to do things and customize things in ways that wouldn’t work for Warpath (much of which due to it possibly breaking the game) but works when purchasing units as individuals who level up individually.

    I need reassurance that I didn’t throw more money then I care to think about at “Warpath lite” and Mantic is going to actually deliver on the initial promise for Deadzone.

    • theearthdragon says:

      To add to my point, It was a major red flag when I heard that there aren’t slated to be Deadzone factions that aren’t in Warpath. Why is this the case?

      With a smaller scale, it can showcase factions (and sub-factions) that would never see the light of day in Warpath as their forces are too weak. You can break down some fo the Rebs as their own thing in Deadzone, where as they would only be part of the Rebs in Warpath. I was surprised with all the kickback against the idea of the “survivors” faction in Plague ridden deadzone given how popular the idea was. All the force would need is it’s own starter with it’s specialty models, and then rest would be borrowed from other forces (Human Reb troopers, Judwan Medic, Splintered off Corp troops).

      It’s doing with Deadzone what is being done with Dreadball. Forge Fathers and Brokkrs have their own teams. The Reb species are all over the place. Species that have no business on a battlefield have a place on the neodur……what ever it is ;). There are factions that makes sense for Deadzone but don’t make sense for Warpath, including some of these aforementioned Dreadball teams (Maybe Crystallans aren’t powerful enough to field an army, but if they are in the area and want to impede FF mining ops………).

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