A skirmish miniature wargame is a special subclass of wargame that plays out at a much smaller scale than traditional wargames. While full-on wargames might take many hours or even days to complete, a skirmish game is over rather quickly.
Another common difference between a skirmish game and traditional wargame is in the figures themselves. Single figures don’t represent a group of troops, but an actual individual character. Often each character in the skirmish will have their own unique name and stats. Some skirmish games even have a narrative, making them a little more like tabletop RPGs.
If you like to play shorter games and want something without a mountainous rulebook, skirmish games might be for you. The games I’ve listed below are ones I’ve heard good things about online. While I have no basis to say these are the best choices, they are often recommended and serve as a good place to start looking for something that appeals to you. So in the tradition of skirmish wargames, I’ll get right to it.
Scrappers: Post-apocalyptic Skirmish Wargames
Scrapper is a game by Osprey Publishing. That’s a name that means quite a lot to many skirmish wargame fans, since apparently Osprey makes some of the best skirmish games around.
The name of this game should be pretty self-explanatory. The game’s setting is in a post-apocalyptic 150 years in the future. Nukes, biological weapons, and more have torn the Earth apart. Those who still live on this world have to constantly fight for survival. So there are still humans around, as you might expect, but they are in competition with other new factions. Mutants, robots, that sort of thing.
Your job is to put together a crew of “Scrappers” and send them out to scavenge precious resources. Obviously the other player’s crew wants the same thing, and to the victor go the spoils.
To play this game you’ll need to buy the book with all the rules and lore (152 pages of it) and some miniatures. Which miniatures? Well that depends on what you have. There are no official Scrappers miniatures, so you make your own cards based on the figures you have! A game usually lasts between one and two hours. It’s an interesting concept, and if you already have a bunch of miniatures the cost of the book is a negligible entry fee.
Blood Red Skies
While everyone seems to love the X-Wing game these days, there’s something to be said for a more historical setting. Blood Red Skies takes us back to the bad old days of WW Part Two.
This is a very fast game. A single skirmish takes between 30 minutes and an hour. During that time you better keep your wits about you if you want to win. There’s a starter kit to, er, get you started, and this is set during the Battle of Britain. As such, you can expect authentic models, albeit made from a soft plastic. They also come completely unpainted, so if you fancy recreating historical livery, now’s your chance.
As with X-Wing, there are cards that can be attached to the model bases. These modify the individual plane stats. Instead of one set of rules, the makers of the game have seen fit to provide three of them. These are the standard, expanded, and scenario sets. The standard rules don’t use the cards at all. The expanded set is where things get interesting.
While somewhat abstract and by no means an aircraft wargame simulation, Blood Red Skies has had nothing but good things said about it. Though it just came out in 2018, I have a feeling that this one is going to go quite far.
This is yet another title from Osprey, but this time the conflict is happening in a sci-fi world untouched by the cruel fate of an apocalypse. In this vibrant vision of the future, you command a team from one of many factions; there are space pirates, smugglers, space police and more to choose from.
Like with Scrappers, it’s up to you which miniatures you use and how you describe and create your crew. The rulebook has detailed instructions on how to craft your characters and terrain into a cohesive scenario. If space opera sci-fi is your thing, then give Rogue Stars a look.
Company of Iron
This is a skirmish level game that takes the larger wargames its based on and scales them down – with new rules to work with the smaller scale. The game uses miniatures from the Warmachines and Hordes games also produced by Privateer Press. You’ll need about 10 to 15 miniatures to a side. Unlike the bigger games, the warcaster and warlock element has been taken out of the game. You also don’t get to use the full warjack machines, but can use their smaller light warjack versions. If you already know those games, however, then Company of Iron will be easier to learn, since the core rules remain the same.
The specific setting used in this game brings in elements of both Steampunk and Magic. Unlike the full-version Warmachine game, you don’t win or lose based on the loss of your giant steampunk robot. In fact, you don’t get one – just a light warjack or an oversized monster, depending on which faction you choose to play. Unlike most other skirmish level games, you are still commanding units of troops instead of named individuals. Still, the scale is much smaller.
If you already own the bigger Warmachine, this is a great way to take miniatures you already own and play a new, smaller and faster game with them. If you aren’t a Warmachine player, then this is a low-commitment entry into a larger world. Either way, it’s one of the best-regarded skirmish games out at the moment.
Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire
Warhammer is without a doubt the biggest name in tabletop miniature warfare, but that doesn’t mean that skirmish-level takes on the game are out of the question. In fact, they’re rather popular.
In the case of Shadespire, it’s a tactical arena combat game. In other words, it’s a fast and furious game between two players and is over in a whiplash-inducing 30 minutes. This game integrates with the latest Age of Sigmar incarnation of Warhammer Fantasy. You use miniatures that clip together, but you still have to paint them.
This is not, however, a skirmish game that uses the core rules of a parent game. Oh, no. It uses cards and other novel items to make something very new. It has a typically dark story about doomed adventurers trapped in a twisted city forever, but I’ll leave the lore discovery to you.
In the game, each player puts together a small warband. There are three rounds in each game and these in turn consist of four turns for each player. Each player has a set of custom dice and two decks of cards.
The game can apparently accommodate two more players if you combine two basic sets with each other. It’s also a very simple game to learn, which makes it a great entry point for those new to miniature war games. You don’t win this game by simply annihilating the opposing warband. Instead, you need to have the highest amount of glory won from the “objective” card deck. In addition, you can spend your glory tokens to upgrade your heroes.
Shadespire is undoubtedly an interesting game with a low cost of entry and the pedigree of games workshop behind it. You’d be a fool to let it go by without at least giving it a look.
Frostgrave is another game that carries the Osprey brand. Like Shadespire, the story involves groups of adventurers entering a forbidden city. However, in this case you don’t want glory. Just filthy, filthy lucre. This is also a game about wizards and their apprentices; not some sweaty, sword-slinging barbarians. OK, this game actually also has muscle men, but they work for the aforementioned mages.
To play the game you first need to create a wizard character. To do this you need to choose from several schools of magic and then have your magical hero learn a number of spells – from that school as well as from schools that are related and neutral magic. Interestingly enough, some spells aren’t actually cast during play. They are cast in preparation for the game, happening behind the scenes as it were. I haven’t seen that before.
You can also have an apprentice who knows all your spells, but can’t cast them quite as efficiently. Then you are left with a selection of more hands-on combatants such as soldiers and knights. Each player can have ten miniatures at most. The non-wizard characters are just fodder and don’t advance. Not too much of a loss though, as you can use the gold you earn to buy some more.
Unlike many other games of this type, Frostgrave uses a D20 for its main game mechanics. The roll determines everything from turn initiative to who wins in a fight, after also taking stats into account. In some ways Frostgrave is a little like a dungeon crawl. Each time you play there’s one of a number of scenarios describing whether your wizard has found a treasure, a monster, or something even weirder. This matters, because Frostgrave has a campaign battle system. Between games you add up your XP, upgrade your wizard, and perform other preparations to do battle. You can also build infrastructure such as inns and treasuries, which give you all sorts of bonuses.
Frostgrave is a truly unique and interesting game. Mechanically it’s a skirmish wargame, but it has elements of a tabletop RPG as well. Totally worth looking in to.
The History Channel isn’t really known for its number of actual historical documentaries. Instead, it’s become a rather successful reality TV channel, giving us such gems as “Pawn Stars” and “Ancient Aliens”. Despite being generally outmoded, they have, however, produced one of my favorite TV shows – a little series called “Vikings”. It tells the semi-historical tale of king Ragnar Lothbrok and his various clashes with Anglos, Saxons, the French, and, really, anyone who gets in his way.
After watching this brilliant show, I’ve become rather enamored of the combat and warfare of this age, which is why SAGA has caught my eye. The factions you can choose from in this game include Anglo-Danish, Viking, Welsh, and Norman warriors. Fun fact – I’m a Norman descendant! Gameplay takes place by choosing options from your “battleboard”. This happens through the use of custom six-sided dice. Combining with the nature of the battleboards and some random chance, you have to come out on top of the carnage.
There are new factions and battleboards planned for the future, which means if you enjoy these Viking-era battles, you can look forward to ongoing expansions.
Test of Honour
Let’s not be too Eurocentric with the selection of miniature skirmish wargames. To bring a little variety to the mix, here’s a game called Test of Honour by Warlord Games.
This is a game of samurai – the Japanese equivalent of a knight. These warriors have a strict moral code known as Bushido, the way of the samurai. Each side in this battle has between five and twenty miniatures. While not quite as fast as some games here, the battle will usually be decided within somewhere between thirty and sixty minutes – still a blazing pace by wargame standards.
Out of the box, there are six battle scenarios. You have to play them in a particular order to form a story. The full rules are available online, so you can check out the exact game mechanics for yourself before putting any money down. There is, however, a hard copy in the box as well. You get 20 spear- and 20 bow- or musket-wielding soldiers in the box, along with five samurai. There are also 2D terrain cards and a whole bunch of different tokens, dice, and cards. Each scenario has different victory conditions, so the game doesn’t have time to go stale.
Based on community reviews, professional reviews, and bunch of videos I watched, it seems that Test of Honour is a uniquely atmospheric game. It’s a little like playing a pulp samurai movie on a tabletop. So if you are a fan of Japanese period melodrama then there’s a lot to like here. Even if you don’t particularly care for the setting, the game itself is a clearly-written, challenging, tactical miniature wargame that does its own thing. At the very least it will be a diversifying addition to any collection.
Get a Little Fight in You
There are many reasons to pick up a skirmish game. For one, most of us who aren’t already off the deep end don’t have the time and space to accommodate huge wargame setups. Skirmish games are often no more time and space consuming than board games, yet give you a great microcosmic experience of what the big boys get up to behind closed doors. It means you have an excuse to collect and paint some miniatures. It also means you don’t have to put up nearly as much money. Most of these games only involve buying a base set and then expanding it only if you really want to.
Most importantly, skirmish games are less about taking your wargaming super, super seriously and more about having a blast. This is the sort of entertainment you can whip out at a moment’s notice and play all night with your buddies. If you aren’t sold on them yet, I advise you check for a pulse.