Essential ingredients of skirmish wargaming rules

After playing many different rules and games, and reading about infantry warfare, here are several mechanics that I consider to be essential if a game is to approximate real combat. I will also take a look at how these are treated by a number of skirmish rule sets that I’m familiar with.

Interesting activation system

The standard activation system is IGO-UGO. One player activates all his units, then it’s the other player’s turn. This has several major disadvantages:

  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to react to the opponent’s moves
  • Being first becomes very important, as you can potentially take out a significant part of the opponent’s forces before his turn.
  • It is boring for the non-active player

The simplest way to get rid of this is alternating activation, as used e.g. by Battletech. Here players take turns activating their units. This avoids the long downtime and provides a way to react to the opponent’s actions. This can be combined with a way to prioritize the activation of units, or randomization. Star Wars Legion does both. Activation alternates. At the beginning of the turn, players nominate a number of units that can be activated directly, with the others being activated at random. Dead Man’s Hand lets the player assign Poker cards to the units, and activation order is dependent on the value of the card. Black Ops activates units completely at random, based on cards being drawn from a deck. Infinity uses IGO-UGO, but provides reaction possibilities due to its ARO mechanism – nevertheless, going first can be decisive. X-Wing and Skirmish Sangin activate in order of unit skill. FNG uses a die roll – only units with a reputation equal to or above the result may activate, meaning that more experienced units will activate more often than rookies.


Older rule sets had no provision for overwatch. An active unit could act with impunity, without a chance for enemy units to react. This is completely contrary to the real world, where a well prepared unit in cover is very difficult to attack. The most common solution is the addition of an overwatch state. Units in overwatch can react to enemy actions, usually by firing upon them. In Star Wars Legion, units can take a Standby action, which lets them react to enemy units within a certain range. Skirmish Sangin has a snap fire rule. In Spectre Operations a model can be put into overwatch, allowing to react to enemy actions. Infinity has an automatic overwatch system (ARO – automatic reaction order), where all units that see an active unit can react in several ways, with firing usually being less effective than in the active turn. This means that players need to always take into account all enemy units, just like in real life.

Suppression and morale

Most wargames are too deadly, with most shots resulting in kills. The fact is that very few bullets actually hit. I’ve read that, in Vietnam, the US fired 50,000 bullets for every enemy killed. Most fire is not to kill, but to suppress the enemy. Another factor is that, unlike displayed in some wargames, units don’t fight until the last man. A unit is generally considered to be out of the fight after it has taken 50% casualties, as the remainder will be busy dealing with the casualties, demoralized, and the chain of command disrupted.

In Star Wars Legion, each successful attach (even if it doesn’t do damage) causes suppression. Once a unit’s suppression level has been reached, it can only do one instead of two actions. Once twice its suppression level has been reached, it will try to flee the table. Skirmish Sangin does not have suppression fire, but requires a morale test if a unit has been shot at. Spectre Operations applies suppression based on the weight of fire put against a unit. While there is no explicit suppression fire, units with automatic weapons can fire at a higher burst, incurring a to-hit penalty, but causing more suppression points. Heroes of Normandie (not a miniatures game) has an interesting mechanic where suppression fire has a better modifier, but does less damage. Black Ops works somewhat similar, with the unit hit by suppression fire taking damage if it takes actions (instead of keeping their heads down).

Communication, hidden movement, spotting

These are somewhat more esoteric, and not necessarily a core ingredient of rules and hence less common. Communication rules require some sort of communication between units and leaders if units are to do useful things. I think this is often overlooked, as communication is one of the most important aspects of warfare – it just appears to be less important on the tabletop as the player can see everything that is going on and act based on it. Star Wars Legion works with limited communication ranges for direct activation of units. Relatively common is the use of a communication roll for calling off-board support, such as artillery.

Hidden movement should be an essential ingredient of any wargame (as uncertainty about the enemy’s whereabouts and strength is normal in combat), but is difficult to achieve without an umpire.  A common approach is the use of blinds, i.e. tokens that may or may not be a unit of a type that is only known to the owner. Infinity has this with its camouflage mechanism, but it could be added to most systems quite easily.

Hidden movement also adds a requirement for spotting, as it should only be able to attack units that have been identified as enemy. I think this is especially important for WWII games that mix infantry and armour. Games sometimes makes tanks appear as invincible to infantry, whereas the historical record shows that tanks without infantry support are practically unable to spot infantry and are hence easily attacked from the rear. Having spotting also makes it possible to add reconnaissance units to a game. Infinity has a discover action that takes into account things like range.

Putting it all together

I have not yet encountered the perfect miniatures game that includes all these mechanics in a way I like. I think that Infinity offers the most tactical choices. The downside is complexity, and the activation system leads to cinematic combat where a few models pull all the weight and others only generate orders. Star Wars Legion has many of the right ingredients (and does a good job at being a reasonably quick system for fire-team based combat), but fire combat is a bit simplistic (no modifiers for range or movement), and the overwatch/standby mechanic is underused in my opinion. FNG (and other Two Hour Wargames products) has a couple of interesting mechanics that make combat more unpredictable. But I guess I’ll have to come up with my own set of rules at some point if I want to have everything covered to my liking. 🙂

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