Into the Fray — An Introduction to Skirmish Wargames

July 19, 2018 Off By Simon

Of all tabletop games, none are more intimidating for the potential player than miniatures wargames. If you’re anything like me (and most people, I suspect), you were first drawn to the games by seeing beautifully painted minis—the promise of childhood toy soldier games made realer than real—and were then immediately horrified by the prospect of not just having to figure out an arcane ruleset but then having to assemble and paint the damn things.

Back in the bad old days of the early 1990s you most likely fell for Warhammer Fantasy Battle (now transformed into Age of Sigmar) or Warhammer 40,000. Both of which necessitated purchasing, assembling, and painting upwards of fifty miniatures just to get started. Having worked in marketing for a major miniatures company for many years I have absolutely no doubt that the prospect of painting an entire army has scared off a not-insignificant number of potential players.

Fortunately, these days, there are a wealth of excellent skirmish miniatures games to play, all of which provide compelling gameplay with low-model counts that make them gentle introductions to the world of miniatures wargaming. Hell, there are almost too many good ones nowadays.

That’s why this article is the first in an open-ended series covering contemporary skirmish games with an eye towards introducing new players to the games and the hobby as a whole. This first article is meant to discuss the current state of skirmish games not just in terms of products, but also offer some philosophical insight that may even be interesting to one or two people besides myself. Future articles in the series will focus on specific games like Necromunda, Saga, and Gangs of Rome.

The greatest appeal of skirmish wargames is almost certainly that they present easy entry-points for people fresh to the whole hobby. However, they also offer great opportunities for seasoned veterans of the tabletop to try something new without committing to the huge investment in time and money of another mass battle game. Almost anyone can find at least one friend who might want to try out a new game, and most skirmish games will offer a relatively modest investment in money.

Many games offer two-player starters, including all the rules, models, and many of the peripherals necessary for two players to participate in full games. Those that don’t offer a two-player starter (increasingly rare, these days) will still only require a copy of the rules book and for each player to purchase the necessary models for their forces. Most skirmish game manufacturers produce pre-made “starter sets” for their various armies.

But before you buy a single thing for your new game of choice, I strongly recommend taking an evening to browse the internet for images of painted models from that game. Find some images that inspire you. If you’re playing a game set in an historical period go search paintings or photographs from that time. Whatever kind of game it is, find a corner of it that excites you and dig deep. Then think about how you can apply that to your skirmish force.

Wargaming isn’t just a game; it’s a holistic experience. Actually playing the game is the smallest portion of that experience compared to the time you’ll spend thinking about your next game, painting your figures, and talking with your friends about it all. Go deep with your skirmish games. You’ve only got to paint a handful of models, (3 at the low end, 30 at the high end, on average) and even if you’ve never painted before, and your first model looks a little like an enthusiastic cat got a hold of some paint, they’ll still look great on the table from three feet away. I promise.

If you really can’t paint for some reason, perhaps due to disability, buy a couple cases of beer for your buddy who can do it. They want to play as bad as you do. That said; don’t write yourself off to fast. I’ve seen a truly lovely army painted solely in black and white tones by a gentleman who was colorblind. A painted army isn’t just a work you do for yourself, it’s a sign respect for your opponent and the experience you’ll be sharing. By all means, put your dudes together and try out your first game. But get your guys painted. It’s worth it.

Most skirmish games don’t require much space and can be played on a kitchen table. Spend a little bit more money on some appropriate scenery for your game of choice (or scratch build it if you’re really ambitious) and consider one of the numerous printed battlemats to really set the scene. All told, most skirmish games can be bought into for less than $200 US. Split two ways, that’s about a hundred bucks each for a pair of armies, rules and enough scenery to have a great looking little game.

I’ll be back soon to review and talk in more depth about one of my current favorite skirmish games, Test of Honor: The Samurai Miniatures Game.