How I Write Skirmish War Games: Introduction and Manifesto
Updated: Jan 21
I've worked on a few miniatures war games now, written a handful and studied a whole bunch, as such I've formed a set of hopefully useful opinions and advice on writing them. I don't consider myself an expert, which is why the title of this blog series is "how I" write rather than "how to" write them. However, while there is a good deal of support for those writing their first boardgame and quite a lot for those looking to create a new miniatures war game there is relatively little on creating a small, highly narrative skirmish game.
I'll start by trying to define a few terms. Wargames are a board subject and definitions are at best vague.
Firstly, there are massed combat wargames, also known as unit, army or for any pre-WWI era, historical wargames. These games are defined by a few things, most obviously that they let you play with honking great loads of models, lined up in lovely ranks and looking jolly impressive. In mechanics they will tend to require some form of "combat resolution" where the forces of battle "break" a unit, rather than the death of an individual these battles will shift when entire units cut and run. As such they will generally also have significant elements of psychology, and movement or line of sight will be to some degree dictated by the nature of the formations. These games tend not to deal too much in pre-built narrative, armies may be fighting over high ground or claiming a bridge, but they are rarely rescuing a damsel in distress or robbing a bank. The big boy of such games was for a long time Warhammer Fantasy Battle and since its demise a few systems such as Kings Of War or A Tale Of Fire And Ice have tried to step into the gap but nothing has become the standard. I'm not going to be a lot of help if you're working on one of these but Rick Priestly's "Tabletop War Games: A Writers and Artists Handbook" is excellent so read that instead.
Next there are squad based wargames, known as large scale skirmish or skirmish games. Generally movement here is a lot freer than in unit games with squads formed by a collection of individuals able to turn around at a moments notice. They are defined by rules such as squad coherency and lanes of fire. Battles will generally be claimed by squads rather than individuals and are more likely to include objectives but usually not battle defining scenarios. Most WWII historical war games are of this format, which was largely created to simulate WWII combat tactics. Warhammer 40K is the monster here but Warmachine/Hordes and Saga are among many excellent examples in the field. I'll be talking about some relevant points for these sorts of systems but won't go too deeply into their mechanics. This can also include systems with non-human squads such as attack wings in large scale space or aerial combat games, and can overlap at times with unit scale wargames.
Lastly, there are individual based skirmish games, often referred to as narrative skirmish wargames. Movement will always be the freest here, models will generally have a wide range of special rules and psychology, while present, will rarely remove player's control of a model. Models will generally have multiple wounds and only be removed by losing wounds. Victory is far more likely to be defined by scenarios and objectives and campaigns are pre-required. Tactics often center on "buffs" and "auras". Interestingly while unit scale wargames will usually force continuing combat (to allow for the all important flank or rear engagement) and squad scale wargames avoid continuing combats at all, individual based wargames usually allow models to disengage but at some form of cost. This style generally only makes its way into historic gaming in the form of Wild West gun fights, Gladiator battles or duels. Its most successful example is probably Malifaux although many smaller games choose this scale as its potentially low buy in point can make an easier sell to new gamers. Many non-humanoid scale miniatures games such as X-Wing, Blood Red Skies or Gaslands arguably fall into this category. It is the elements involved in designing this sort of game that I will mostly be discussing in this blog series.
One of the things that concerns me, or at least makes me feel that a potential is being lost, is the lack of progress I see within the fields of wargame design in anything other than mechanics. This is not due to a lack of design skill or talent in the field but rather of vision. While mechanics advance in relation to activation, reaction and probability balancing or in elegance in rules production and presentation depressingly little has changed in the playing experience of the average wargame. We live in a tabletop golden age where a formerly niche boardgame series such as Catan is now stocked on every high street and that age has come about because there are boardgames offering genuinely different and engaging experiences such that every non-initiate can experience a sophisticated designer game set to their taste and level of engagement. Even RPGs, previously a defining standard of niche tabletop play, have moved on offering single shot experiences or single page systems along with amazing entry level and boardgame fusion experiences.
Skirmish games continue to be almost willfully obtuse in this area, they delight in esoteric rule sets with exponential complexity and sometimes seem to strive not to produce any form of emotional experience the player does not willingly invest themselves. There is almost no wargame I could present to an interested friend who "doesn't like wargames", not in the way that I could to one who "doesn't like boardgames". For that matter, not liking wargames probably doesn't deserve to be in quote marks. If you've experienced wargames enough to think that you don't like them, you're probably right. While the mechanics my have come on leaps and bounds the attitudes and experiences of enjoying wargaming have shifted little since I first encountered them in the early '80s, but they can be more, people working on them are some of the best designers working anywhere, they just need a call to strive towards something else.
I intend to address what I see as some persistent failings in many modern wargames in this blog series and suggest some advice in relation to them, but if this series achieves nothing else I hope it suggest to any wargames designers and skirmish games producers to create something aside from just another skirmish game.
First Advice - Not JAGSS
Just another generic skirmish system, ever since GURPS, and arguably before there have been a number of generic RPG systems. While there have been attempts to do something similar with skirmish games they have never really taken off, which is odd because there are a range of rules entirely generic to most skirmish games that just get defined over and over with slightly different wordings. There will be line of sight and it will be true or abstract and if there is magic it will have a chance of backfiring. There are several rules I barely need to read in most new skirmish games, I still do, but only to see how it got worded this time. By virtue of this tendency if you just say "Weird West", "Alt-History Steampunk" or "Urban Fantasy" I have a pretty clear skirmish game in my head before you finish the phrase. That can't be helped and there's no point reinventing the wheel or filling your game with weird versions of existing mechanics as a gimmick. The problem comes when the game offers nothing I didn't get from reading the blurb on the back of the book, and that has to be you're first design question. You might be writing your first skirmish game and inventing every part anew, but if you honestly can't find anything in your game that isn't in ten others apart from a stat value or a variation in background, find an idea that can set it apart and find a way to iterate it. Ask yourself one serious, clear question, what is your skirmish game offering that is worth offering? Not "that will make it stand out" or "what will help it sell", but that makes it worth doing. If the answer is nothing but phrases about setting or background then that question should genuinely concern any designer looking to create something worthwhile in this field. What actual different experience will it offer to its players? What will it do that can't be achieved by picking up any of the fantastic games that already exist and just renaming their rules? You can fail to achieve that thing, but at least have it to try for.
My first piece of advice then is this, before you begin set yourself up to fail big before you succeed small.