22 April 2010

Skirmish vs Battle Games - Where 40k went wrong

Greetings all,

I'm back to regular blogging after the spring hiatus. Big things going on between getting married, house shopping, and preparing for this weekend's big announcement (more to come).

The past few months have really helped give me some perspective on why I went on a semi-hiatus from GW last fall, and have been diving into 15mm miniatures and alternate gaming systems. Some of it was GW's corporate policies, some of it was the price of gaming, some of it was realizing I was unable to see that "the GW hobby" is a buzzword so that people who are really part of "the wargaming hobby" only buy GW product. But, as I've mentioned in a few posts, a big part of it is GW's rule systems. I've finally figured out how to articulate it.

I've made no secret that 1997's Epic 40k is one of my all-time favorite rulesets. Forge of War has been a great replacement for large 40k games mainly because of the vague similarities of those two games. But Forge of War has always seemed to be missing some intangible thing, especially in small games. I've finally figured out what it is, and this will involve a walk through history.

Warhammer 40,000 originated as Rogue Trader. Not news. But anyone who has actually played (or even read) Rogue Trader knows that it is a true skirmish game - made for only about 10-20 models per side, and dealing with a far greater level of detail than a full set of battle rules. 2nd Edition was an attempt to streamline some of the random/detail mechanics and increase to platoon-size forces. Somewhere around this time a few different things happened that changed 40k forever.

1) Plastics became a standard to fill rank-and-file troops and vehicles, which grew army sizes.
2) The tournament scene took off, especially in the US and Germany. This called for streamlined mechanics and lists and fewer "scratchbuilt" options. Hello Codex armies, goodbye Citadel Journal and White Dwarf special lists.
3) Necromunda spun off as a new high-detail true skirmish game.
4) GW became an immensely successful corporation, rather than a small business.

These things led to 3rd Edition. In that book, the design notes clearly state that it was an attempt to create a set of true "battle" rules to reflect the growth in player forces. This philosophy has carried through into 4th and 5th. But I think GW failed in many respects. 5th Edition 40k, with its 2000-point average game size, still relies on a skirmish-built system of roll to hit, roll to wound, roll to save; and the game rewards clever army lists and rule-bending rather than realistic strategy or fluff-based force organization. It's a battle game being played with skirmish rules.

Necromunda (and it's brother Gorkamorka) were attempts to satisfy the skirmish niche. And they do so fairly admirably - these games have a small but loyal fanbase. The level of detail that these games provide are great for small unit scenarios and campaigns, and horrible for tournaments.

Epic: Armageddon was an attempt to satisfy battle rules and tournament desires. It does both, but at the expense of actual fun in my opinion.

But back to 40k, and how we're dealing with it. I recently purchased Flying Lead and Mutants and Death Ray Guns from Ganesha Games. They are FANTASTIC skirmish rules which I will review soon. But for now, what you need to know is that these games allow you to play 5-20 troops per side (and a vehicle or two) in a game that is very enjoyable and rewards strategy. Forge of War doesn't provide skirmish detail, but it makes large games of 40k an absolute joy to play.

So what we've decided for now, not only with all the new 15mm goodies but with our 40k collections, is to change the way we play. We are going to use Ganesha Games (Mutants and Death Ray Guns mixed with Flying Lead elements) as our primary gaming rules, using what would normally pass as 40k Kill Teams. These will form the bulk of our campaigns, especially in Imperial cities. When the time comes for a large, decisive battle, we will break out Forge of War. Playing 40k this way actually allows us to create stories far closer to the 40k fluff than Warhammer 40,000 5th edition has ever allowed. And we're going to have a lot more fun doing it.

I encourage all of you - even if you are dead-set against using anything but GW models - to try alternate rulesets to play different kinds of games.


  1. I totally agree with you. TOTALLY. I loved the Rogue Trader, it was so full of energy and was tasty food for your imagination... and I loved also the 2nd edition because it was kind of compatible with the previous one -well who can avoid to use ROBOTS if the previous edition covers them?!-.
    Still, in 15mm I found brilliant new possibilities and very good new rulesets.
    Please visit my little blog about wargaming:

  2. Andrea,

    Glad to see my ideas aren't completely unique! What rulesets have you been using in 15mm?