‘Don’t throw those spears at me:’ Embracing the richness of historical skirmish wargaming

I meander into the dynamic world of skirmish wargames, uncovering my own evolution of historical skirmish wargaming, plus a few tips for newcomers to the pastime, and explore some thoughts for seasoned wargamers.

Richard Bird

2/1/20245 min read


Whether you're a seasoned commander or just dipping your toes into the world of miniatures, historical skirmish wargames have taken quite a leap in the last few years. It is not surprising that, with diminished incomes caused by the year of the lurgy and current world economic problems caused by war, we have to watch what we spend on the hobby. Skirmish games require fewer figures; there is no pressure to build vast armies, as I remember doing in earlier years. Moreover, newbies as well as veteran gamers can dip their toes into different eras, perhaps gaining a taste for one particular period of history that can expand into larger-scale battles.

As lads, my friends and I had a bundle of 54mm plastic figures of all types, and we’d play either indoors on the carpet or out in the garden, which was basically skirmish games with no rules. Just bang, bang, you’re dead. When we discovered that there were rules to this play, it became a different ball game altogether.

Skirmish wargames have come a long way since the early days of tabletop battles. Back when I started, it was all about rudimentary rules and makeshift terrains. But fast forward to 2024, and we're talking about a whole hobby. OK, so back in the day, the choices were limited, especially for historical enthusiasts like me. But now, you'll find skirmish wargames set in a myriad of time periods and genres. Almost any genre is catered for; the options are endless. It's a banquet of choices, and you're the master chef!

Embracing Technology: The use of technology in wargaming has skyrocketed. Virtual tabletops and apps complement the physical battlefield, making it easier than ever to track your troops and manage complex rule sets. It might sound daunting, but trust me, it's like having a loyal aide-de-camp by your side, handling the nitty-gritty details.

The narrative takes the lead: One thing I've observed is the growing importance of storytelling within historical skirmish wargames. It's not just about moving miniatures anymore; it's about crafting an immersive experience. Some games now incorporate role-playing elements, blurring the lines between skirmish wargaming and interactive storytelling.

For those who share my passion for the Napoleonic era, there are classic rule sets that have stood the test of time. Games like Sharpe Practice capture the essence of historical skirmishes during this period. However, don't shy away from exploring modern adaptations that bring fresh perspectives and streamlined mechanics.

Miniatures and Terrain Tips

Ah, the joy of painting tiny soldiers. When it comes to Napoleonic miniatures, manufacturers like Perry Miniatures and Warlord Games offer fantastic ranges. I vividly recall spending hours meticulously painting my Napoleonic armies, creating a force that could rival Napoleon's Grande Armée. I still do; in fact, it’s one of my favourite forms of relaxation after qiqong.

And let's talk terrain—sometimes the unsung hero of any skirmish wargame. To immerse yourself in any era, consider crafting terrain that reflects the landscapes of the time. One thing I would bear in mind with skirmish wargames is the fact that one needs more objects laying around on the table, perhaps a cart, a few barrels, rocks, bushes, fallen trees, and the like—some human clutter. After all, there’d be more noticeable stuff at this scale of game. This adds a whole new layer to your gaming experience.

Miniature battles of whatever size cannot be done without terrain, unless you are fighting in a desert or open plain, of course. Make it the best you can within your budget. More on that in a future post. Just take a look at a few of the better-produced rule books, and you’ll find plenty of eye candy to get you dribbling and running for your wallet.

A few considerations for newbies

First things first, get your hands on the rulebook. It's your bible, guiding you through the intricacies of the game. Miniature selection? Start with what captivates you—whether it's the fierce British riflemen or the dashing French cavalry.

Setting up the battlefield is like creating a canvas for your masterpiece. Keep it simple at first, gradually adding more elements as you gain confidence. And hey, don't forget to measure twice and move once—a lesson I learned after a disastrous cavalry charge mishap!

Ease into it with simple scenarios. Imagine a small village skirmish or a scouting mission. These scenarios not only introduce you to the mechanics but also let your creativity run wild. Before you know it, you'll be orchestrating epic battles worthy of historical acclaim.

The wargaming community is a treasure trove of wisdom and camaraderie. You may have to drink some beer and eat a few peanuts, but you’ll survive. Join clubs, participate in forums, and dive into online resources. Trust me, the friendships forged over shared victories and defeats are as memorable as the battles themselves.

As seasoned commanders, some of us crave more complexity and depth. Experiment with expanding on existing rule sets or even creating custom scenarios. The time I spent crafting a "what-if" scenario for the Battle of Austerlitz remains one of my most cherished gaming memories.

Have a go at painting your own figures; the veterans can help in that regard, and adding some realistic basing can turn your miniatures into true works of art. Trust me, the sense of accomplishment when you field an army you've painstakingly painted is unmatched. We have to start somewhere, and you’ll just get better and better at it.

Organizing or participating in larger events brings a new dimension to your skirmish wargaming journey. Coordinate with fellow enthusiasts to create epic campaigns that span multiple battles, each influencing the next. It's like conducting a symphony of war, and you're the maestro.

Creating Immersive Narratives

Wargaming is not just about moving pieces on a board; it's about telling a story. Get some historical accuracy into your narratives. Imagine the tiny struggles of soldiers in the Peninsula Campaign or the fights for survival of Napoleon’s army in their retreat from Moscow. From my own perspective, adding historical context enriches the gaming experience and rekindles my childlike creativity. An actress called Zsa Zsa Gabor, who passed away in 1916, once said, ‘the only difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys.’ So true.

Finding the right balance between competitiveness and storytelling is an art. Sure, winning is thrilling, but the narrative is what makes the victories and defeats resonate. Don't be afraid to let the story unfold, even if it takes an unexpected turn. I liken it to an episode of a TV series, where you can’t wait for the next one to see what happens. Don’t forget, the winners have to buy the beers. My rule.

Something for the future

With technological advancements, who knows what the future holds? Virtual reality skirmish wargaming, perhaps? The possibilities are as vast as the miniature landscapes we create. Embrace the change, adapt, and continue to forge unforgettable gaming experiences.

Our skirmish wargaming community thrives on diversity. Encourage newcomers, share your passion, and welcome different perspectives. A diverse historical skirmish wargaming table is a healthy one, filled with stories and experiences that enrich both young and old.

Check out my Rules Roundup page, where I give some insight into the various rules I personally like, both for large-scale games and skirmishes.

Where his gun was needed, there sprang the ‘Jambe de Bois’. Charlier of Liege, a notable figure during the street fighting in Brussels during the Belgian War of Independence, 1830. Inspiration for a skirmish wargame indeed.