Tabletop wargames such as Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar often dominate the miniature gaming scene at events, tournaments and in online media. However, some of the best miniature gaming experiences out there, both when it comes to hobbying and playing games, can be found among the best skirmish games available.
Skirmish games are miniature tabletop wargames on a smaller scale, often with between 5 and 20 models per player. This allows for much more customization, both when it comes to building/painting models and choosing the team you want to field in a game.
This lends the genre really well to narrative games with sprawling campaigns where each model gets to tell its own tale, and there’s nothing quite like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with a grizzled veteran fighter model who has seen countless battles, lost an arm along the way, and gained legendary shotgun he looted from the corpse of the leader of a rival gang or squad.
Skirmish games are also great for gamers who don’t have time to go to competitive tournaments, or the money to buy and paint 2000 points of Space Marines or Lumineth Realm-Lords: You usually only need a box or two of miniatures and some scenery, and you’re ready to play. We often call them “wargames for dads”.
This article introduces you to 7 of the best skirmish games available today. It covers how they play, what their narrative setting is like, and how easy it is to get started with the specific game.
If you play skirmish games to tell stories, and you don’t mind a science fiction setting, there’s nothing quite like Necromunda.
The game takes place in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, but not on the battlefields full of bombastic, terrifying superheroes that you might associate with the setting. Instead, the game revolves around gang warfare in one of the massive Hive cities of the eponymous Imperium-controlled planet, which means that the game lets you experience the grim dark future as it is lived by more or less ordinary humans.
To play the game, you pick a gang and equip enough fighters to field them in a battle against other players. That usually means that you need to build between 5 and 20 models, and most gangs have dedicated boxes you can buy that will let you build most of the loadouts available to your gang. However, take note of that little “most” in that sentence: Necromundas rules for building and equipping fighters are insanely granular, and there are rules for almost anything you can imagine. Your fighters can equip guns and melee weapons from long lists of weapons with specific statistics for each one, as well as various clothing and armour, trinkets, grenades, drugs, trophies, pets and so on. For some, this is the best part of Necromunda. For others, it gets too complicated.
Your gang has an equipment list that tells you what you can start the game with, but as a campaign progresses, you’ll visit various shops and loot equipment so that you’ll end up having a stash of all sorts of strange stuff to wield in battles – and then there’s skills, tactics and even psychic powers on top of that!
There’s around a dozen gangs to choose from, ranging from classic biker gangers such as House Orlock and the punk ladies of House Escher to Chaos cults, aliens in disguise and even the riot police of the Palanite Enforcers. If you really want to get your hobby knife out and build something truly unique, the Venator gang lets you build a gang of bounty hunters that can be represented by almost any miniature you can dream up.
The gameplay itself is also very detailed, with rules for the direction your miniature is facing, rules for injuries and prostheses, as well as statistics such as Intelligence, Leadership and Cool (!).
Thankfully, all of this complexity is built around a pretty simple core gameplay loop: Players take turns activating one ganger (fighter) at a time, who can then carry out two actions in their activation. Movement and combat works much like in Warhammer 40,000. You measure movement in inches, and you roll 6-sided dice to check if you hit and wound your target, who then gets to roll a save roll. It’s just much more complex, because targets can be knocked prone, get injured and so on, and your weapons can have all sorts of effects on their target.
It might sound like a lot – and it is. Your first games of Necromunda will take hours longer than the ones you’ll play after having played 5-10 games, since there is just so much to keep track of. But, when the game finally clicks, the game’s complex rules make for some of the most engaging campaigns out there. In a campaign, players fight to control territories that afford them resources, and the consequences of each fight affect the outcome of the campaign. Gangers can die and be removed from the campaign permanently, but the game’s system for morale in combat means that a gang will often flee from a battle long before most of its fighters have been taken out of action, so many of your gangers will survive many battles and turn into experienced veterans with scars, cybernetic prostheses and experience in various specializations.
Like many Games Workshop games, Necromunda can also be very funny, because it (not unlike something like Dungeons and Dragons) combines so much complexity with the randomness of dice rolls, so that your gangers will often blow themselves up with grenades, win knife fights against much larger opponents, or drop off a ledge and break their leg while attempting a heroic acrobatic leap.
If you’re okay with the complexity of the game, the only other warning you need before diving in is that the game can be pretty expensive if you want all the rules: New rules are released pretty erratically in various gang books and campaign supplement, so even if you only want to play one specific gang, you’ll still need to buy 4-5 books to have access to everything. If you’re up for that, however, you might start out with a nice, clean gang with a couple of shotguns, and end your campaign worshipping Chaos gods, wielding massive two-handed chainswords , or even mutating into a Genestealer Cults gang!
Pros and Cons of Necromunda:
+Wild complexity and great value for narrative gaming
+very diverse model range and very accomodating for kitbashers/conversion enthusiasts
+ fun, chaotic combat with lots of options
– messy publishing schedule that can make buying all the rules very expensive
– one box of gang miniatures will rarely give you all the modeling options the rules actually allow for your gang
– has a very steep learning curve and is not particularly balanced
Easy way to get started playing Necromunda:
If you like the over-the-top, heroic fantasy of Games Workshop’s Age of Sigmar setting, and you like skirmish games that are fun and tactical while also being pretty quick to learn and play, Warcry is the game for you.
The game’s setting is a twist on the heavy metal t-shirt heroics of Age of Sigmar, in that it takes place among the many tribal warbands fighting for the attention of the Grand Marshal of Chaos, Archaon the Everchosen, in the Eightpoints, a desolate hellscape of blood rain and murder. In a sense, it’s Age of Sigmar’s Necromunda, with its focus on the people at the relative bottom of the Eightpoints, the underdogs of Chaos hoping to one day be as cool as one of those Chaos Warriors you might have painted as a kid in the days of the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game.
The warbands fighting in the Eightpoints all interpret the forces of Chaos differently: The Splintered Fang see it as a great serpent, so they use poisonous piercing weapons and pet snakes to win their fights, while the Unmade worship Chaos through pain by mutilating themselves. It’s all pretty gory, gothic stuff, but each warband has a lot of personality and they have very distinct playstyles.
When it comes to customization and building your warband, Warcry deliberately keeps things really simple: One box builds everything you can field in your warband, and there are (almost) no equipment options or anything like that – just a few fighter types to choose between. If you’re big on kitbashing and converting, this might sound like a dealbreaker, but stick around until the end of this entry and you might change your mind.
Gameplay-wise, Warcry also keeps things mechanically simple, but tactically complex: Missions are made by drawing cards from a couple of different decks (unless you’re playing specific missions or competitive games), and players then alternate activating fighters, who can each take two actions, like moving or attacking.
Combat is a bit like the larger scale Warhammer games, but with one notable absence: There’s no save rolls or wound rolls, and if you roll a 6 to hit, you automatically hit and do critical damage, which is usually much higher than your normal damage. Most fighters have more than 5 Wounds (hit points), so they don’t go down straight away, but it generally means that Warcry is a really bloody game where everyone gets hit a lot and takes a lot of damage. It speeds everything up and makes the game feel more like an action movie than a strategy game.
On top of this, Warcry has a very elegant ability system, where each player rolls 6 dice at the beginning of a round, which can then be used to pay for abilities. For abilities, you have to pay with either a double roll (two 1s, for instance), a triple or a quadruple roll, and many abilities become better if the dice you pay with are, say, 6s rather than 1s.
All of this means that Warcry is a tremendously satisfying game to play turn by turn – when the game’s balance doesn’t get in the way, that is. The biggest problem with Warcry, which some people will argue is rather a strength, is that the developers couldn’t get themselves to stick with the narrative of ambitious Chaos underdogs fighting catch the attention of their overlord: Within a few months of its release, nearly every faction in Warhammer Age of Sigmar had gotten rules for fieldng some of its miniatures in the game, and the rules for those factions didn’t get nearly the attention the Chaos warbands got. Many of these new warbands were also much more powerful than the Chaos warbands, so the game quickly went in the direction of guitar solo fantasy again with Stormcast, undead and monsters fighting in epic clashes.
New Chaos warbands are still released regularly, and they even have access to some really cool mercenary monsters, but they easily drown in all sorts of broken combos in other factions. One good example of this is how Toughness, one of the statistics on your fighter cards that determines how easy it is for your opponent to hit you, is now essentially useless, since there are so many fighters around with many attacks and high critical damage that will bypass that Toughness anyway.
It’s still cool that you can play the game with miniatures from your Age of Sigmar army, but if you want an even remotely balanced game, you might want to stick with the Warcry-specific Chaos warbands. If you do, you’ll have a great time, and it’s accessible enough that some of your non-gaming friends are likely to have fun playing it as well – maybe even in the
Pros and Cons of Warcry
+very accessible and inexpensive to get started with
+elegant ability system and fun, fast-paced combat
+you can use most non-monster Age of Sigmar miniatures in the game
– …but that also means the game becomes pretty unbalanced
-not much customization for hobbyists and people who like equipment options
-some veteran hobbyists will think it’s too simple
Easy way to get started playing Warcry
Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team
Kill Team is the most recent Games Workshop skirmish game, which gives it the advantage of being able to capitalize on the evolution of both Necromunda, Warcry, Underworlds and the previous versions of Kill Team itself. This means it’s a very modern and elegant game which is at once complex enough to cater to players of Necromunda or Warhammer 40,000 and streamlined enough to feel like a slightly deeper version of Warcry. It’s really great.
The game takes place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, at a point more or less midway between the big army clashes and the street skirmishes of Necromunda: It’s all about small special forces teams carrying out missions behind enemies, so while you don’t have an entire army at your disposal, you’re still fielding some of the best operatives you have. So yes, you can play as a squad of Space Marines or a Troupe of Aeldari Harlequins.
On the faction level, Kill Team is a bit like Warcry in the sense that there are two categories of kill teams: Those found in the Compendium book, which is more or less the basic infantry of every faction in Warhammer 40,000, and the bespoke kill teams with model kits designed specifically for Kill Team such as the Veteran Guardsmen, Ork Kommandos, or Sister Novitiates. The former are great for when you want to try out the game with your existing Warhammer 40,000 collection of miniatures, but they don’t have nearly as many faction-specific rules or operative types as the latter. In between the two categories, there’s also a pseudo-category of kill teams with a similar rules complexity as the bespoke teams, but played with existing miniatures in addition to rules released in the White Dwarf magazine, such as the Adeptus Mechanicus Hunter Clade or Thousand Sons Warpcoven.
The operatives (fighters) of Kill Team lean in the direction of the Warcry model: there are some different loadouts and some equipment you can choose, but mostly, a specific loadout corresponds to one specific operative type, which means you don’t have to write down “character sheets” for each of your fighters – you can just play them from their operative entry in your rulebook. If you’re playing a Kill Team-specific team, you then have a bunch of faction-specific abilities on top of that, and all teams have Tactical and Strategic Ploys that they can spend command points (which you earn each turn) to use before or in the game.
The gameplay sees you alternate activations with your opponent, but instead of just having two actions per turn, your operatives have an Action Point Limit statistic which shows how many actions they can take in an activation, and some operatives also have a Group Activiation statistic (well, they all have it, but it’s just 1 for most of them) which lets you activate more than one of that operative type at once. This adds a nice sense of scale to the game, where some operatives will be much more capable on their own than others, while some weaker operatives will be able to swarm larger ones.
You also have the option to give each of your operatives a Conceal order before their activation, which makes it impossible to target them with most shooting actions (they’re sneaking and can’t be spotted), while also being unable to perform some actions themselves. This makes missions feel much more like they’re carried out behind enemy lines, and adds another layer of tactical depth to an already complex game. Ranged combat is a lot like in other GW skirmish games, but closed combat is a mini-game in its own right, as both players roll off and choose which of their dice will be used for attack or defense, so melee becomes as risky and intense as it should be. Hopefully, other Games Workshop games will adopt this system in future editions.
One new feature in Kill Team could be a dealbreaker for skirmish game veterans: Although you can technically still measure distances for moving and shooting in Kill Team with a tape measure in inches, the game’s rules assume you use special movement gauges includes in its starter sets that turn distances into categories represented by geometrical shapes so that a rule will tell you to move 2 Triangle rather than a set of inches. It takes a while to get used to, but makes the game feel a bit more like a board game and a bit less like a big wargame, so it will probably make the game feel less daunting to newcomers.
Finally, if you’re a fan of the Warhamer 40,000 universe, you’ll love the way the new bespoke Kill Teas for the game explores corners of the lore that are too detailed to fit into a regular 40k army, such as the Death Korps of Krieg Guardsman Kill Team with it’s map-readers, zealots and artillery spotters, or the Sisters-in-training Novitiates and all their religious paraphenalia. I, for one, can’t wait to see which new kill teams will be released over the next couple of years
Pros and Cons of Warhammer 40k: Kill Team
+the latest Games Workshop skirmish game, so also the latest iteration of their design philosophy for the genre
+detailed, complex and streamlined rules that makes for tense, tactical battles
+you can play as any 40k faction
-…but most of them are not as good as the bespoke Kill Team factions
-its system for measuring distances is needlessly abstracted and will take some time to get used to for most players
-not many customization options for kitbashing/conversion enthusiasts
How to easily get started playing Kill Team
If tactical battles where every little decision matters means more to you in a skirmish game than building your own unique warband, Warhamer Underworlds is the skirmish game for you.
While Underworlds and Warcry share the heroic dark fantasy setting of Age of Sigmar, they’re almost opposites when it comes to rules and the play experience. Underworlds has no measuring tapes or gauges, no scenery to speak of, and absolutely zero customization options when it comes to what models you want to field on the table.
Instead, Underworlds combines the skirmish tradition of two teams fighting each other with a board game-like playing board made of hexagons and a two decks of cards for each player.
Instead of each team fighting over the same mission objectives, each player must complete a series of objective card (drawn from a deck of cards chosen from a larger pool by the player before the game begins) to score glory points, which count as both your points total and a currency with which to buy upgrades to fighters. The player’s other deck of cards is composed of abilities that can be activated during the game and upgrades that can be applied to fighters.
Each player chooses a warband to play, but instead of choosing between a bunch of different fighter types and consulting pages and pages of faction rules, you simply purchase a box with 3-10 miniatures which are always the ones you will be fielding on the tabletop, including a character card for each and a pack of cards to use with that warband – and that’s all the faction rules you need to play.
The game then runs for 3 rounds with four activations per player (rather than one for each miniature you have in play), and the player with the most glory points at the end of third round wins. This very tight structure means that tough tactical choices have to happen all the time: Which fighters should you move in this round? How can you achieve the objectives you have drawn in as few activations as possible while keeping your opponents from achieving the ones you think they’re going for?
On top of all this, Underworlds is, for better or worse, a deck-building game: Much of the strategy in the game is about which cards you pick for your decks, and in the most competitive layers of the game, you have to have access to all cards to build decks you can actually win with. To some players, this will sound horrible, while Magic the Gathering players will feel right at home.
The latest edition of the game has introduced a mode of play where every warband has a preset deck you must play with, which helps a lot in making the game more accessible. This is great, since Underworlds is, rules-wise, a beautiful game that manages to put impressive amounts of tactical depth into a very elegant package that allows a game to played in half an hour if you know what you’re doing.
The game is constantly evolving, with a new season being released every year with substantial additions to the rules, new warbands being released at least quarterly, and a steady effort from GW to balance the competitive side of the game with ban lists for cards and all that stuff card game players will be used to.
Finally, if you’re a painter more than you’re a kitbasher/converter, and you like fantasy settings, you’ll love Underworlds: The fact that the model count is low and designers don’t need to think about multiple options and loadouts mean that the warbands of Underworlds are quite simply some of the most awesome miniatures in the business. There’s so much creativity at display, with a giant crab in the Idoneth Deepkin warband, a terrifying skeleton executioner for the Ossiarch Bonereapers, and so on and so on, and while the starter sets for the game are getting more and more expensive, it’s still a very cheap skirmish game to get started with.
Pros and Cons of Warhammer Underworlds
+ unique, tight ruleset that makes the game quick to play and tactically complex at the same time
+ beautiful miniatures
+ doesn’t really require a hobbying skills to play (you can even assemble the miniatures without glue)
+ the game is constantly evolving with new warbands and seasons
– the game is constantly evolving and it can be difficult to keep up with all the new combos and systems
– no customization outside of deckbuilding
– doesn’t have any of the roleplaying/campaign aspects of traditional skirmish games
– while inexpensive to get started with, joining the competitive scene in the game requires you to purchase hundreds of cards from various publications while keeping up with what cards are legal in the current season.
How to easily get started playing Warhammer Underworlds
If you want to have fun, tell stories and build amazing warbands and game boards with miniatures from all kinds of publishers, Frostgrave is a great way to get started.
Frostgrave is a skirmish games about wizards and ther bands of mercenaries fighting over treasure in the snow-covered city of Frostgrave. You start by building your wizard from a variety of magic schools, spells and equipment, and then you add an apprentice and some fighters to keep the enemy at bay while you hurl your fireballs at him. You then play against an opponent on a battlefield that’s preferably cluttered with scenery, trying to claim treasure and complete missions, with NPC enemies and monsters thrown into the mix. It’s very much like a squad-based, tactical light roleplaying game, so if you’re coming from the RPG community and trying out skirmish games for the first time, there’s no reason you shouldn’t start with Frostgrave.
The relative simplicity of the game’s rules for fighter types and equipment means that Frostgrave is also a game that doesn’t care one bit what kinds of miniatures you use for it. North Star Military Figures and Osprey Games have a model range for the game with some great plastic miniatures whose many bits are mostly interchangeable between kits, and we highly recommend them, but you could just as well use a mix of your DnD miniatures, Warhammer armies and even some toys and collectible figures if you want. To some purists that will not sound great, but to the rest of us it’s either a hobbyist’s playground of converted miniatures or an opportunity to spend all your money on weird miniatures from Kickstarter campaigns to build the warband of your dreams – and the same goes for building the ruins of Frostgrave you’ll be playing in.
This intentionally relaxed attitude to miniatures used in the game, and the excellent model range made for the game, means that Frostgrave can also be by far the cheapest game to get into among the fantasy entries in this article. The rulebooks are very cheap and are available as e-books on any platform (unlike those for Games Workshop games lately), and the most recent second edition of the game has been designed so that older rules supplements for the game are still compatible with the new edition.
Whether you’ll like Frostgrave or not is mostly as case of whether its DIY fruit salad approach to games design sounds appealing to you. It’s a bit old-fashioned, which is especially evident in the fact that the bespoke models designed for its many wizard classes are all in a very old-school design and sculpted in pewter metal, which will be very unappealing to anyone who joined the miniature gaming hobby in recent years where high quality plastic has become more widespread. Do not that you can just print your own and getting good 3D printing files have never been easier.
However, if you like a very modular game with a focus on magic and treasure-hunting as well as great freedom when it comes to miniatures and scenery, you’re going to have fun playing Frostgrave.
Pros and Cons of Frostgrave
+high degree of freedom and customization
+very inexpensive to get started with
+simple but fun, magic-focused rules and gameplay that verges on being a light roleplaying game
– requires a lot of creativity from the players, and the bespoke miniature released for the game are great but not on par with the best in the business
– not as tactically complex as some entries in this article
– you can’t buy a starter set for the game
Marvel Crisis Protocol
If what you love about skirmish games is the the epic brawls between a few strong fighters across cool terrain, look no further than Marvel Crisis Protocol.
Marvel Crisis Protocol is relatively new skirmish game that’s becoming extremely popular, not just due to the mass appeal of its setting, but also due to its excellent “easy to learn/hard to master” rules and the dedication of its developers to keeping the game balanced.
First things first, though: For Crisis Protocol, Atomic Mass Games secured the license for what’s probably the best conceivable franchise for a low model count skirmish game: the Marvel superhero universe. You can play as all the most well-known superheroes and villains such as Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Ultron, Thanos or Spider-Man, but also much more niche characters usch as Moon Knight or The Hood. If you’re in any way a Marvel fan, you can be sure that at least some of your favorite characters are in the game.
Not only are all these characters in the game (and you can pick a handful for each game, either with a common theme or just the ones you like), they’re also represented by absolutely fantastic and dynamic models that are sculpted on a fairly large scale that works really well for ambitious paint jobs, so it’s also a great game for hobbyists – though perhaps not for people who like to have a lot of customization in their games.
Gameplay-wise, Crisis Protocol excels at translating intense superhero battles to the tabletop by giving each character a wide array of statistics and abilities, all centered around the management of Stamina and Power. Stamina is basically your hit points, but when you run out of them for the first time, you flip your character to its Injured side, which gives it new abilities and statistics. Whenever you suffer damage, you also gain Power, which is a resource that can be used to pay for your stronger abilities. In storytelling terms, this means that your character channels the rage and desperation of being hurt into the will to perform its most powerful attacks and abilities, and it means you always have something you can do, even when you’re getting beaten up.
It’s wonderfully intense and appropriate to the setting, and while it’s easy to get going and and have fun kicking miniatures around, the game is also very complex when you start investigating synergies and combos between the wide array of characters you can field.
There’s so much more to the game, with its various cards for combos, objectives and so on, and Atomic Mass Games als produces excellent scenery for your heroes to toss around, and since the models are pretty expensive, don’t get fooled by the low model count for the game: You’ll end up spending a large amount of money if you want to play the game competitively. However, there are also many hours of fun in just building, painting and playing the starter set for the game, and the developers have recently released a comprehensive balancing of the game’s rules that you can download for free from their website.
Pros and Cons of Marvel Crisis Protocol
+ Great setting that works well with the genre
+ Fun gameplay that’s very different from the Games Workshop skirmish game
+ amazing model range
– no customization to speak of
– the setting and the scale of the miniatures do not lend themselves well to using proxies and third party miniatures
– the amount of abilities for each character can make it very difficult to figure out all the synergies at play in the game as a beginner
How to easily get started with Marvel Crisis Protocol
If you love the immersion and tactical depth of skirmish games, but really don’t want to deal with building and painting miniatures, X-Wing is a great skirmish game to pick up.
Set in the Star Wars universe, X-Wing distinguishes itself from the other entries on this list by the fact that you’re not controlling warriors and heroes in the game, but spaceships! The game is essentially a dogfighting game where ships fly around, outmaneuvering and attacking each other.
Movement is the real star of the show in X-Wing: Each ship has a small dial with all its movement options represented, and at the beginning of each round, each player uses those dials to decide which maneuvers the ships will perform, without showing it to their opponent. This is used to simulate the ships moving simultaneously, so you have to try to predict what your opponent will do and move you ships somewhere where you hope they’ll have a clear shot at an enemy ship, without getting into the line of fire themselves.
Ships also have a field of view within which they can attack, so positioning really is everything. When you attack, you roll dice to see how many hits you make, and the opponent rolls defence dice, which will sound familiar enough to most skirmish players. On top of that, the ships have all sorts of statistics, upgrades and special actions they can do to increase damage, maneuverability or survivability.
All of this sounds fairly technical, and perhaps like just “Kill Team in space”, but the actual experience of playing the game is extremely cinematic, and you’ll soon find yourself yelling embarrasing sci fi sound effects as the tiny ships dart around across the battlefield.
The models themselves are all great and very faithful to the films and cartoons they appear in, and you buy them fully painted and assembled, so if you’ve been reading this article hoping that you can somehow play skirmish games without having to get into all the “hobby” nonsense, you’ve arrived at your destination with X-Wing. That’s not to say there’s not an awesome community of X-Wing painters who repaint the ships, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
Pros and Cons of Marvel Crisis Protocol
+ fun, intense dogfights with great tactical depth
+ beautiful miniatures you don’t have to assemble and paint
+very different from all the other skirmish games on this list while still providing the same great player versus player experience
– not much to do for a hobbyist in the game compared to other titles on this list
– your experience with rules from other skirmish systems will be largely useless in learning this very different game
How to easily get started with Marvel Crisis Protocol
…and all the other ones!
There are, of course, many more skirmish games out there that didn’t make this list. One popular example is Infinity CodeOne, which didn’t make this list simply because we didn’t play it, and the same goes for the Kings of War spin-off Vanguard. If you have a 3D printer, consider looking into Bloodfields as well, which we’ve reviewed here (and if you are in the market for a printer, take a look at our best printer for miniatures here)There’s also the new Stargrave, which is Frostgrave in space, and many, many more, but this is concludes our list of the ones we love the most.