2015 was the year of the skirmish game. Wyrd Miniature's game Malifaux exploded on the scene at SBWG in fantastic form with their newest expansion book Shifting Loyalties while Corvus Belli's N3 rules for their scifi action game Infinity took our wallets and hearts by storm. Gaming groups across the world have been enamored with smaller size games, tight rules, and affordable entry games such as Malifaux, Infinity, and X-Wing. However, just like how FPS and MMORPG games took over the video gaming market in the late 2000s, TTWG's strong shift towards skirmish level gaming has left some wanting for more...
The last 15 years of gaming saw the meteoric rise of Games Workshop's average game size, as larger models and larger game sizes were pushed by the company. These games required hundreds if not thousands of dollars of investment and hundreds of hours of painting, hobbying, and practice time. You needed space and time to play these games, and while they were really fun, the swinging dice and time commitment became somewhat of a bear to play each week (looking at you, 8th Edition). People began looking for other outlets that were cheaper, took less time, and allowed players to challenge themselves and each other, rather than challenge ambiguous rules.
Enter Warmachine, the skirmish game about wizards and robots. Focused on tight-knit battlegroups, Warmachine followed the trend of Games Workshop, starting as a roleplaying game turned skirmish turned full scale battle game. However, where Warmachine had evolved the concept of tight rules and interactions, the bloat is real with this game. Average game sizes increased from small skirmishes between Warcasters and their various Warjacks to mixed companies to cavalry to colossal robots stomping around the battlefield. Sound familiar? Standard games of Warmachine are 50 points, with many tournament types moving to 75 points. Due to balance skew in Warmachine, players bring 2-3 individual lists to tournaments which they may choose from at the beginning of their matches, again, astounding growth in scale compared to where the games started.
Obviously, a void existed in the late 2000s for a true skirmish game. While GW attempted to answer this demand with their own "skirmish" system City Fight (a modular, simplification of 40k rules) and Warmachine attempted to answer the call by reminding players that they could just play with battlegroups (during the launch of MKII) no company shown through until, in my opinion, Corvus Belli with their smash hit Infinity.
Infinity evolved in clarity and translation from edition to edition, with its own swings in relative power (remember TAG Lieutenants being specialists?) but the company managed to keep the game under 20 models per side, despite their Ariadna and Yu Jing fan base attempting to spam as many cheap dudes as possible. N3 only further solidified Infinity's dominance in skirmish wargaming with cleaner rules and more interesting interactions that kept the game action packed and fun to play.
Wyrd Miniatures also evolved the concept of the skirmish game. Malifaux, Wyrd's flagship product, borrows much from its predecessor Warmachine (and in more than just the style of bases used). However, with the scale of the game, finding the right balance of models in a list is fairly straight forward, again keeping each side below 20 models isn't even a challenge. And, just like Infinity's focus on tight rule interactions and variety in options that each model may choose from when activating, the skirmish system is strong and enjoyable.
One of the key components in Skirmish gaming is the importance of keeping the game compact. You won't see troop transports in Malifaux, and you won't see flyers zooming through Infinity maps.
However, what about looking forward? Miniature gaming is ever changing, especially as the market changes its structure to find the optimal style of transaction that encourages players to spend their leisure money (adding on the ever maligned in-app purchases), and part of that trend is shifting away from the confines of what is popular in design, both in style and in rules. Historical Wargames lead to Fantasy RPGs, which in turn lead to Fantasy Wargames, which lead to SciFi Wargames, which lead to steampunk wizards and robots, which lead to Anime inspired SciFi, which lead to the gothic punk 19th century South. Likewise, complicated rules have been streamlined until they have become as simple as having a 50% chance to do anything (Age of Sigmar) and, in turn, evolved into complex interactions and synergies in an almost RPG like fashion.
My answer for the future of wargaming is simple. Just because the current trend in TTWG is skirmish level gameplay it doesn't mean that players don't enjoy large scale combat. Look at the success of Kings of War in the post-Sigmar Warhammer era. Likewise, 40k and 30k are still the Coca Cola of TTWG. Arguably, the only issue with these games is scale and price. Playing a game with 100+ 28mm heroic scale dudes is expensive! What if players could get the same enjoyment out of mass scale combat without the price tag?
The answer? Something super retro: Micro Armor. Yeah, that's right, that thing that GW tried 6 times (Space Marine/Epic, Warmaster, Man O' War, BFG, Aeronautica Imperialist, The Battle of Five Armies) before abandoning it completely. I believe their issues with all but their naval/air combat systems were issues of model scale, but I digress.
Micro Armor can easily scratch that itch you have for massive combat without needing to break the bank. The most popular Micro Armor games currently on the market are: Drop Zone Commander and Flames of War, with a notable mention to Spartan Games (Dystopian Wars, Firestorm Armada, Halo Fleet Battles). DZC and FoW are fairly inexpensive (starter armies under $100 with minimal purchases needed above and beyond that), the rules are simple and straight-forward, and the models are pretty swank (although the 10mm and 15mm infantry have a long way to go).
I, personally, love Micro Armor, always have. Man O' War and Battlefleet Gothic were my two, all-time favorite game systems in TTWG history. I have a massive Dystopian Wars French fleet, a large Feral Resistance force for DZC, and a 2000 point WWI French army for Flames of War's Great War variant. Now, while Dystopian Wars rules are archaic, poorly written, and overly confusing, FoW and DZC have straight forward rules, relying on established conventions of wargaming (GW-like to hit and wound charts, simple saves, leadership checks) while emphasizing scenario based play.
2015 was the year of skirmish games, and I don't see them going away anytime soon. That being said, 2016 is looking like the year of Micro Armor for me, and hopefully for others as well. I have my first official game with my FoW French this week, and I will do a write up discussing the game by January 1st. Join me on this journey back into massive battles at an approachable scale.