Skirmish Scale

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Skirmish Scale by Len Krol

We have always been told that there are three scales in war gaming. They are tactical, operational, and strategic.
Actually there seem be six scales. They are skirmish, tactical, battle, campaign/operational, theater of operations, and strategic. In this article, we will concentrate on skirmish.

Unit: individual or single ship, or aircraft.
Formation: Squad to Platoon
Turn: 2 seconds to 30 seconds
Duration: 5 to 15 minutes

Skirmish is what many people think war is. It is Sergeant Saunders ordered to take his tired soldiers to go out on another patrol. It is a little child pointing sticks and saying “Bang, Bang.”

Now there are many skirmish game systems. In the 19th century, wargames were developed to train senior officers. They would give orders to regiments, brigades and divisions. Skirmish scale is the war of the non commissioned officers and junior officers. They do not need wargames. They train their soldiers by practicing exercises in the field. This is an example of live action role playing before that term was invented.

The first skirmish games I knew of were SPI’s Sniper, and an addition to the Chainmail rules. I had Sniper first. Almost immediately, we created a campaign game. We would play a series of scenarios and at the end we would judge which side did better. If one side did really well, the squad would improve. You could lower the panic level or improve the preservation level. No thought was given to determining individual skill and improving them. Dave Arneson had thought of that. He gave individuals ratings for dexterity, strength, and so forth on his way into creating the first fantasy role playing game called Dungeons and Dragons. If only I thought that far ahead, I could have invented role playing games!

Other games can be skirmish games. Any air combat game where a counter or a figure is one aircraft is a skirmish game. All aircraft have ratings for speed, maneuverability, rate of climb and so forth. Richthofen’s War is an example of this. That game also had a campaign game, the first I had ever seen. This would inspire me to create other campaign games. Naval games can be skirmish games. The Constitution vs. Java is an example of a skirmish game, even though each ship has hundred of sailors manning them.

Designing a skirmish game is difficult. You have to make many decisions.

Sequence of play: Should it be alternative movement, or simultaneous movement? Should you roll for initiative or should some criteria like leadership or skill level determine the order of action?

Weapons: alike or similar?: In Sniper all the rifles are the same In AH’s Firepower the rifles are different. One has a longer range, while another has a higher rate of fire. Is the difference important? Maybe, but sometimes it depends on the scenario or the time period.

Effect of the weapons: In AH’s Firepower, if a person is hit, they are eliminated. In other systems you determine if you hit and then determine the effect. If you hit, you determine if the target is killed, serious wounded, lightly wounded, or stunned. Sometimes you determine the hit points inflicted.

The terrain: I always felt that Metagaming took the coward’s way out when they set Melee in an arena. However when this combat system was the basis for the GURPS role playing system, they were ready to deal with terrain. In a skirmish game you have to ask questions about the terrain and its effect on movement and combat. You have to decide how many movement points it costs to wade waist deep in a stream, or how mud slows you down. Does a rose bush stop bullets from light machine guns? Buildings present their own problems. Ships may have to deal with shorelines and shoals. Aircraft may have clouds to deal with and low level flying has its hazards.

How complex should a skirmish game be? If I were planning a military game I would go for simplicity. Part of the reason is that military players want to eventually use more and more soldiers. I remember playing a battle in Sniper where we each had 40 soldiers per side. The Cry Havoc series by Standard games is an example of this. It is simple so you are able to play a large number of characters.

Role players want complexity. Since you usually control one character, you want special abilities or handicaps.

Skirmish gaming covers all periods of history. Patrols, raids, and ambushes and attacks have been taking place since the beginning of time. Even in big campaigns there are these little battles and they may shape the larger campaign.

Skirmishes have happened throughout history. Assyrian soldiers had to protect supply convoys. Romans had to defend against Goth raiders or they raided Goth areas.

I tend to play skirmish games set in the 20th century. I like the choice of weaponry and am more familiar with the historical situations.

While skirmish games may be hard to design, they can be easy to play. They can be small and not take up much space. They also can be quick to play. I have often played a skirmish game in less than a hour and enjoyed it.


  1. Nice article Len!

  2. This is a nice, concise article on the subject matter, without getting too deep in the weeds. I’m honestly not entirely sure why I am enamored with skirmish level warfare board and computer war games, but I think it is simply because that level of combat is what I envision when I imagine what warfare for individual soldiers is like.

    I started playing board war games many years ago, back in the mid to late seventies and early eighties. My first war game was AH’s Tobruk, though I had asked my parents for SPI’s El Alamein (which was the one war game I saw in a head shop type of store that I knew I wanted). I was big into military history and knew a lot (so I thought at the time) about El Alamein, as I was very into the British Army. AH’s Tobruk turned out to be a tactical level game, with individual tanks, towed weapons and squads as maneuvering units. Tanks to tank warfare was covered in a pretty detailed manner. I mostly enjoyed the game, but a lack of any terrain in the game at all (every hex on the map board was just an open, sandy piece of ground) was a bit of downer.

    Most board war games at the time ( that I was aware of) were not nearly as “tactical” feeling as AH’s Tobruk, with the closest thing being games like AH’s Panzerblitz and Panzer Leader, which had platoon level maneuvering units (tank, infantry and towed weapon platoons). Most war games I saw in stores (typically hobby stores) were operational or strategy level games. These just did not interest me as much at the time.

    Then I saw SPI’s Sniper! at a store, and thought to myself, “Finally, yeah, how cool, true man-to-man level combat!” I bought it as a birthday gift for a younger friend of mine more interested in playing D&D and some board war games like Car Wars and TSR’s Divine Right ( a good game in its own right). Sadly, he never wanted to play Sniper! with me, which was really annoying at the time.

    Soon after, I saw AH’s Squad Leader and smartly bought that myself. It became my main jam for quite sometime, though I was also into ship-to-ship level war games like AH’s Wooden Ships & Iron Men, and Yaquinto’s game about Ironclad warfare during the American Civil War. I tried getting into miniatures too, being very interested at the time in British colonial era warfare (because of movies like Zulu and Young Winston Churchill), but I never really had many people to play any of these games with at the time – which was a constant problem that eventually made me sell off all my board war games many years ago, once I’d become an adult.

    By then, computer gaming had become a thing, and I started getting into turn based skirmish level warfare games like the original (1990s era) X-COM, Jagged Alliance 2, the UFO series of real time with pause games, 7.62 High Caliber (a rather detailed RTWP Russian game) and Silent Storm. These were all good games that helped scratch my skirmish level warfare itch in a way that did not require me to find others interested in it playing tabletop versions of such game systems. I rather enjoyed the earlier Total War series games as well.

    Most of these games combined nitty-gritty skirmish level warfare with a deep and interesting campaign level. Despite the growing re-interest in these types of games over the last few years, due to the popularity of such games as the Firaxis reboot of XCOM, it is interesting that all such games nowadays seem to be either science fiction or fantasy themed, or have zombies or some other weird, non-historically based things going on. That’s all very well and good, I suppose, but none of that really floats my boat as much as games like that with a more real world and historically based setting would for me.

    Because of that, and because I’ve always been interested in war game design (be it the tabletop or computer game variety) I am now working on a turn based tactical, skirmish level, man-to-man computer game about WW1 trench raiding and infiltration operations. It is something of an RPG, with you as the player taking the role of a freshly promoted British, French or German corporal in charge of just a small team of soldiers that is part of an experimental trench raiding unit. Your goal is to rise through the ranks, eventually (hopefully) being put in charge of a platoon’s worth of squads, and then finally being promoted to a junior officer rank, thus changing your class by the end of the war in these still (at the time) very class based societies.

    It is hard type of game to design and build, for sure. Right now I’m just learning how to make low poly 3D models, terrain and other game assets that I think will be sufficiently good enough for a game built by an aspiring solo game developer. Then comes learning more about programming in my free, open source game engine of choice (Godot) and getting started on the core gameplay. Then comes development of the relatively linear, meta game loop campaign level of the game. I am mostly retired these days (though I still take on a contract job here and there when I can, if I want) and, despite having a family, with all the work and responsibility that entails, I finally have the time to work on such a big (for me anyway) computer game project. In the meantime I keep an eye on what is going on in the tabletop and computer war game world, and am still rather disappointed that there are few to no skirmish level computer war games with a truly historical setting – that do not have zombies or Cthulhu nightmare monsters to fight. It’s kind of weird that’s the way things currently are, eh?

    • The video game you are working on sounds awesome. Best of luck with it!


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