Miniature Wargames: My Never-ending Search for the Ultimate Army Men Ruleset

I love miniature wargaming. I find both parts of the hobby – assembling/painting models and playing the game – to be entertaining and intrinsically rewarding. I also truly believe that there is a ruleset for everyone, including all different gaming interests and craft skill levels.

That said, I certainly do have thoughts and opinions on the many miniature wargaming rulesets I have played. I will go through these below in roughly the order that I first played them:

X-Wing/Star Trek Attack Wing: Great for gamers who have no interest in assembling/painting minis. However, gameplay ended up relying too much on card combos than actual tactics/strategy. Also, movement templates take away some spatial movement freedom (and flexibility) that exists in most miniature wargames.

Warmachine/Hordes: My first “real” miniature wargame. Interesting mechanics (especially for the warcaster leaders), though rules can be overwhelming for a new player. Dice rolling can be quite fiddly, since it is done per model instead of per unit. The game relies heavily on combos and synergies, which can make army composition more important than tactics (similar to Magic:TG). Steep learning curve, but rewarding if you put the time in.

Warhammer 40K 7th Ed: Simpler and more smoother playing than Warmahordes, however we often spent a lot of time looking up unit power keywords. Also, horrendously unbalanced and not well supported. Some real fun stuff here which could have been much better if more design effort was put into testing and balancing.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Super-streamlined ruleset that is perfect for new wargamers. The initial launch was a bit too simple and was missing basic wargame components (such as an army point system), though many were added soon after. Most unit special rules were printed on the unit card instead of using keywords, which made it much easier to reference. However, some units have way too many special rules, which make larger games clunky.

Warhammer 40K 8th Ed: Streamlined similar to Age of Sigmar. The initial game was very enjoyable, but the extra rules and command abilities which were added with the army books made the game bloated and clunky. To their credit, Games Workshop tried to release patches to their rules to make them more balanced, but this makes it even harder to learn and keep up with.

Blood Bowl: A hybrid wargame/board game. Dated rules can be swingy and unbalanced, but are also very fun and create interesting narratives (like a good wargame should). The biggest problem with Blood Bowl is the play time, which is roughly 2 hours per match. Since it is best played in tournament or league formats with multiple matches, this can be a problem (it sure was for us).

Star Wars Armada: Like X-Wing, but with better mechanics and more depth. However, some of the mechanics can still be a bit fiddly (especially the defense tokens). Really liked this game, though the post-launch support was disappointing compared to X-Wing. It also has a relatively small number of tokens compared to other FFG games, which is one of my major complaints about their games.

Infinity: One of the best sci-fi skirmish rulesets ever made, though not without its faults. Rules are relatively complicated and the flow of play can often be interrupted by the opposing player (which some people like). The biggest problem that I have with this game is the price of the miniatures, which can be higher than Games Workshop games (though the actual “cost to play” is lower overall).

Battletech: Giant mech simulator that desperately needs to revamp and modernize its rules. I love the universe and lore, but it is way too fiddly compared to newer designs (see Warmachine for big stompy robots done right). Also, its hex-grid play space really hurts the overall aesthetic of the game. If they made the game closer to the Battletech PC game (which is based on the original ruleset with smart tweaks), I think it could much more successful.

40K Shadow War Armageddon/Kill Team: Both are skirmish wargames set in the WH40K universe heavily inspired by Necromunda (which they also recently re-released). The base rules in both are very enjoyable. Kill Team matches are very short (three turns, I think), which can make them end a little too fast. Also, since the rules use WH40K models (often sold in squad-sized boxes), you often have to pay for many more models than you actually use. That said, Kill Team is still one of my favorite sci-fi skirmish rulesets.

Guild Ball: Kind of a combination of Warmachine and Blood Bowl (though it feels more like the former). I’ve only played two matches of this, but it was pretty fun. However, like Warmachine, there are many special abilities that require often referencing a rulebook (or player aid), which can feel clunky sometimes. Also, despite the theme, can feel more like a melee brawl than a sports game (unlike BB).

Marvel Heroclix: Deceptively complex superhero skirmish game played on a grid. I used to play Mage Knight when I was a kid, which uses the same rotating base mechanism for wounds, though I think that game was more fun overall. Was not super impressed by this game, though its difficult to say why. I think the narrative created by the games was not as compelling as it should be considering its theme.

Gaslands: Car combat game played with Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars. Besides the gimmick of playing with toy cars instead of traditional minis, it has a very interesting push-your-luck mechanism. Uses templates, like X-Wing, for better or worse. Probably the cheapest miniature wargame to get into. Its a good ruleset overall, though I think only one of the provided game scenarios takes full advantage of them(death race).

Warhammer Underworlds: Wargame/CCG hybrid. Very simple and fast to play, but it has some interesting mechanics (mostly relating to card playing). Though it’s supposed to be used to introduce new players to wargaming mechanics (like dice-roll tests and spatial movement), it lacks the narrative that makes these games so rewarding to play. Because the matches are so short and have few dice rolls, they can also feel very “swingy” and unfair (the manual even says to play “best out of 3”, the only time I’ve seen this in wargaming).

Bolt Action: My first historical WWII wargame. Its rules are very similar to older editions of Warhammer 40K, but without the rules bloat and unbalance. Though it is often criticized for not being realistic (especially weapon ranges), the rules are relatively easy to learn, especially for GW veterans. Though the chip-draw mechanic for giving orders has been used in other historical wargames, this is the first time I’ve seen in it a more accessible, mainstream miniature wargame (and it works great!). This is one of my favorite wargame rulesets, and is a great introduction to historical wargaming.

Flames of War: This is also a relatively streamlined historical WWII wargame, though it is at a larger scale than Bolt Action (company-level instead of platoon). The latest version has been streamlined even more, and even includes convenient unit cards with all the stats and special abilities. I’ve only played this once, but I thought it was a pretty good ruleset overall, though nothing specifically stood out. Probably the biggest complaint I hear about this game is that larger matches can look like “tank parking lots” due to the 15mm scale.

Tanks: A super-simple WWII tank skirmish wargame at the same model scale as Flames of War. Its mechanics are similar to X-Wing, though are shallower. That said, it is probably perfect for introducing children to wargaming.

Black Powder: Relatively streamlined gunpowder-era wargame, focusing especially on Napoleonics. My first large-scale historical wargaming experience. Rules are very simple and quick, though rule supplements are required for more historical “flavor”. Does not include any kind of generic scenarios or unit points in the base rules, which may turn off non-historical wargamers. I’ve seen it described as more of a “wargame toolkit” than a fully-developed competitive system. Requires a lot of minis (more than most other games here) and a larger table. Still, it has a real “epic” feeling and strong narrative while not being too long or complicated, which makes it my current obsession.

Black Seas: A gunpowder-era tall ship skirmish game. The basic rules for this game are almost too simple, and many of its more interested mechanics are included in the “advanced” variant. However, some of the advanced rules are also clunky, and so I think its necessary to pick and choose which ones to include. Also, while placing wake markers under models to show their speed is visually impressive, it is too easy to accidentally bump the models.

SPQR: A relatively simple ancient Rome-themed skirmish game. The feel of the game was very similar to Age of Sigmar, but without all the extra special unit powers and rules. That said, the couple matches I played did not feel very historical. Also, though the base rules support multi-model bases (which are common in historical wargaming), the post-launch FAQ changed the rules so that they effectively cannot be used. Still, seems like a good ruleset to bring people into the hobby. Also, the starter box is one of the best bargains in miniature wargaming.

Warhammer Warcry: Fantasy skirmish game in the Warhammer universe. This has a really dice allocation mechanic that adds depth the basic gameplay. Seems better balanced and deeper than other GW skirmish games. However, like Kill Team, short matches can end before they get interesting. Also, the rules require you buy the official terrain, which is expensive. That said, probably the more well-designed GW game I have played overall (though i still like Kill Team better).

Sharp Practice: Played this for the first time the other day. Its a skirmish wargame based in gunpowder eras. I bought it as an alternative to Black Powder to play while we prepare our armies (it needs much less than BP). However, it is a substantially more complicated ruleset, and we had a rough time playing our initial game. It has garnered a lot of praise from historical wargamers though, and I would like to give it another shot in the future. Unlike all of the other wargames here, it has a “roll to move” mechanic in which your movement is determined by a dice roll, which I’m not sure I like.

Lion Rampant: Very lightweight medieval skirmish wargame. I’ve read that other skirmish games (like SPQR and maybe even Age of Sigmar) were inspired by this game, though they have completely different mechanics. The highlight of this game is its order check mechanic, similar to Black Powder (or Hail Caesar), in which you roll a dice after each order to see if its received. If you fail a check, then your turn ends. This gives the game a rhythm that is very different than most other miniature wargames I’ve played. The streamlined rules are great for people new to wargames, but veterans may feel like they are too stripped down. I’ve heard that other games in the series (such as Dragon Rampart) that more fluff.

Blood Red Skies: WWII aircraft combat game. The only other game I’ve played like this is X-Wing, but this feels very different in practice. Instead of blindly programming actions, you have opportunities to react to opponents moves. The three-tier advantage system is interesting as well. Some players may not like the morale system, which counts hits instead of kills to trigger game end (some matches may have no planes getting shot down).The base box gives you enough planes for a full games (unlike X-Wing), though there aren’t nearly as many customization options.

Some rulesets that I would like to try in the future: Hail Caesar/Pike and Shotte (both variants on Black Powder), Kings of War, Song of Ice and Fire, Star Wars Legion, Beyond the Gates of Antares, Frostgrave, Black Ops, Adeptus Titanicus, Monsterpocalypse, WWIII: Team Yankee, Fallout/Skyrim miniature games, and Chain of Command.

What miniature wargames are playing currently? What are your favorites? Do you have any strong feelings about any rulesets?

Updated 6/29/2020

My friend and usually play Chain of Command which has an unusual activation mechanic that once you get your head round it abstracts out the fog of war quite neatly - it’s very much a game that encourages you (as the Too Fat Lardies tag has it) to play the period not the rules - taking cover and using bounding over watch is the only way to advance your infantry against dug in opponents, so it’s a game for the patient, which I find quite charming.

The Pikeman’s Lament rule set for pike and shot skirmishes isn’t that realistic, but it’s fun and simple and quick moving, though we’ve only had a chance to play a skirmish before, well, Coronavirus hit.

Thanks for this, it’s cool you put effort into such a broad overview. I’ve been looking to get into this sorta thing myself for some time and with the lockdown it’s perhaps time I took the plunge. My decision making basis so far has just been ‘whatever seems coolest’ so it’s nice to be a bit better informed.

That said, whatever we choose, it is likely to just be me and the missus playing for now. Are there any of these you’d call out as being of interest to just 2 players? Or any we should avoid on that basis?

Almost all of these games are mainly played with two players, so I don’t think you need to worry. Most of them have 2-player starter boxes that are a good introduction to their rules. If its just the two of you playing, I would highly recommend picking one up.

Also, I think your method of choosing “whatever seems coolest” is the right approach, and I suggest considering “what your wife thinks is coolest” as well :-D

You can’t really get hold of it for love nor money these days, but I love Heroscape and have a rather obscene (or so my wife tells me) collection, particularly terrain.

Fairly simple rulest, easy mode for kids, fun terrain building, hex based terrain that can double as terrain for any other hex movement based game and a theme that brings multiple genres together for mix and match.

I guess it might depend if you consider hex-based movement a true minis based game.

Best WW1-Modern miniatures ruleset ever.

http://www.waynesbooks.com/CommandDecision.html

Warhammer Fantasy 5th edition: the only one I’ve played. I was 13, so it was awesome. Wood elves 4eva.

I periodically get the urge to get back into some kind of miniatures gaming (for some reason the Star Wars capital ship one seems really cool to me), but there’s basically no way to justify the time (and money, tbh) these days given the kids and the job. (Relative to computer and board games, at least.)

Neat write-up. I have played many of the system you listed and agree with your statements. Blood Bowl is probably my favorite, had a lot of fun playing in leagues but it is a time commitment.

My friend really likes Malifaux, for the setting and the for deck of cards. Each round you get a hand of cards, when an action (skill/combat/magic) happens the attacker and defender flip over a card from the deck - the higher card win but both have options to play a card from their hand.

He also likes the Fallout minis game, we have tried it twice and enjoyed it.

I am not you can ever find the ultimate ruleset :-) When i was younger i want lots of units and time of play didnt matter much, now I want fewer units and care more about the story it tells.

My LGS has been pushing something called Godtear hard. I know nothing about it other than they constantly describe it as a “miniatures MOBA.”

These writeups are great. I’ve always craved a miniatures game to get into, but a combination of not many players around here and usually high startup costs have contributed to many failures to launch.

I mean I am full in on X-wing. And if you thought the game was too reliant on combos and cards and less on tactics, have you tried since 2.0 @cpugeek13 ? Because they really did a lot to address that and clean up the rules. Maneuver and decisions now so much more important.

Good thread! Thanks for all the write-ups.

I don’t do much minis gaming nowadays- I don’t have the patience for the painting/assembly parts of the hobby. So some of my favorites reflect that.

The aforementioned Heroscape is just so much fun, but I’m not sure it really counts.

Probably my favorite actual minis game was 40k Epic (Space Marine/Adeptus Titanicus 3rd Ed). It was 6mm scale so super tiny minis and a ton of tanks (and Titans!), the Epic ruleset completely redesigned and streamlined the usual WH40K bloat. It was a really good system.

My actual favorite minis wargame doesn’t actually have miniatures–Battleground: Fantasy Warfare has troops printed on playing cards from a birds-eye view. Yes, the art is terrible 3d models from 15 years ago (when the game was released), but the gameplay is where it’s at. It has a neat system of programming all the troops’ orders at the outset, and then having to modify them each turn with a limited number of command points (if needed). CP are also used to draw command cards that help you out during the game, so not having to waste them adjusting orders is a big help. No minis to paint, and getting everything for any given army is 2 decks of cards, about $20, and they’re were a ton of classic (and not so classic) races out to play with.

I got into Rackham’s Confrontation and At-43 when they started putting out pre-painted plastic minis. I’d bought some of their metal minis when playing their old Hybrid boardgame, but never painted them, and replaced all those models with the plastics. Then when Rackham went under, I bought a ton of the plastic unit boxes for all their armies for dirt cheap and learned to play the actual minis game (both 3e and the rules that the plastics were designed for). They are neat rules, and much more interesting than what I remember of WHFB/WH40K back in the day. I only played them a couple times, though. Now I’m taking the miniatures and repurposing them for…

Nordic Weasel’s series of solo-campaign wargames during this time of quarantine, and I picked up several as part of a deal on Bundle of Holding last week. They’re generic-minis systems and I’ve got a ton of minis, so it should be fun. Rackham actually released a warband-campaign system, Dogs of War, so I’m going to start by blending it with Five Leagues From the Borderlands, the fantasy NW game. If that is fun, I’ll probably dig out the AT-43 minis and try out Five Parsecs From Home, the scifi version. The rules seem pretty light, and the AI (at least in … Borderlands), pretty minimal, and lots of rolling on tables to generate effects and whatnot, but that all suits me just fine.

I think if Battletech is considered a minis game, then Heroscape certainly should be too (though HS is much easier to play).

Yeah, I’ve kind of swung back and forth regarding preferred number of units in my games. While its really convenient to only have to paint 10-30 models for a smaller game and their are some really great skirmish rulesets nowadays, as mentioned above I find some of them a little too short and streamlined to get a nice narrative out of. Some of my most memorable games were huge day-long 40K games that we would run once a year were everyone in our club would join in and the whole table would be filled with plastic.

I haven’t played 2.0 yet. How exactly did they address that? I remember at one point the game was almost unplayable competitively without certain cards. Glad to hear they fixed that!

Yes. Love Nordic Weasel’s stuff, any of it. Highly recommended.

Available here just in case nobody is aware
https://www.wargamevault.com/browse/pub/5701/Nordic-Weasel-Games?src=browse5701

Good to hear! I had never heard of it before, but it seems like it’ll be fun. I’m thinking of running an AAR-blog thing while doing it. Post it here or BGG or something. We’ll see.

EDIT: Dammit. Why’d ya have to post that link? I was blissfully unaware of all the micro expansions and scenarios. And they’re all like $2-3 apiece. Dammit.

FTFY!

Enjoy! I also suggest Squad Hammer. A very fast wargames play set for many eras, I really like it.

Also agree re AAR do eeet! :)

Has anyone tried Naval Thunder or Colonial Battlefleet?

TLDR version: by moving points and upgrade slots into the app they have a greater flexibility and ability to deal with problems/ unplayables. They also have the benefit of a fully matured set of mechanics so things like boost and bombs are built into the core design, and accommodated as such.

Longer version: they do seasonal point updates every 6 months. So over/ underperforming ships and pilots can be adjusted. In theory any competent 200 point squad is competitive. In practice there are still stronger ships and factions, but it shifts over time.

For example Initiative 6 (pilot skill was renamed and compressed to 1-6 instead of 1-9) was overrepresented. I3-4 were underrepresented. So last fall they gave an across the board 3-5 point hike on all I6, and some I5 pilots. Because moving last still was a huge advantage, and not properly costed. This did open up things a bit. I6 still seems proportionally higher, but partly because for many people it is a crutch (and they just like those pilots). But mid initiative pilots are very much playable, I’ve won tournaments with all I4 squads even before that change. But going from I4 to I6 can cost between 25-50% more per pilot, as it should be.

Additionally degenerate mechanics and combos were removed. Things that adjust initiative (PS) were mostly removed, no insta include VI now. Also free die mods, free actions, bumping doesn’t matter I still get all the things type combos? Nuked from orbit. Mostly. They introduced a force mechanic for Jedi/ Sith pilots. They have 1-3 force charges depending, and recharge one per turn. You can sometimes spend a force to do bonus actions, change one focus result, or perform special abilities. Jedi are very good because of this.

But they are expensive, force tokens cost roughly 8-10 points for the first one (mathematically second and third force tokens cost 4-8 points on a pilot) and is just about the only ‘I don’t care if I’m blocked’ mod available.

Turrets are no longer 360 herp derp I always shoot. They are either single arc that can rotate, and rotating usually means no mods, or bowtie, two opposing arcs.

Upgrades are also far more situational, and abilities more positioning dependent. Be in side arc for many republic (making them a line of battle type faction), predator now is bullseye arc only, bonus die require far more careful positioning when available at all, Palob and Jan are both in arc only, upgrades generally cost more, etc.

Two ship lists are nerfed into the ground. There are very few automatic or free mods, so variance is a thing. No longer is Soontir all but assured 3 evades. Naked ships are viable, deadly at times even. If you have two ships you need to play perfectly, even then you can still lose. Enough ships shooting will pole the odd damage. So in high level play you can no longer waltz through with two mega ships. Even the best pilot will lose due to bad dice. Most competitive lists are between 3-6 ships, with deference to the 7-8 Imperial squads.

I’m personally the master of the 4 ship mid I type list. 4 ships with very squirrely and weird movements, and I bet that I can track where we’ll be better than you can.

Almost every ship and pilot is and has been relevant. Except the TIE Avenger. But think of this, for the first few months Redline, the TIE Punisher, was arguably the best ship in the game. Vader has been up and down but always viable, X-wings were dominant for 6 months, Scum has been hurting but they had a period as the best faction (Boba was great, but got hurt by rising ship counts). But the game, more than ever, looks like Star Wars. You can plop down any set of 3-4 naked X-wings and have a realistic chance to win against anything.

Upgrade costs have been changed too. Some cost more based on agility (stealth device), size (engine upgrade boosts), or initiative (munitions or regen). Regen got taken out back, and kneecapped. It makes you weapons disabled, is charge limited, and very pricey. The upgrades scaling costs mean high I agile ships pay a hefty premium, and can easily cost 25-50% of the pilot cost to add 1-2 cards. This feels about right.

Upgrade counts are down. You see them used, but having more than 6-8 upgrades in a list is extremely rare, basically exclusively munitions based lists like Bombers. Naked aces like Soontir don’t just see play, but are often optimal!

And more. But it all means that dial selection, action choices, and positioning matter more than ever. If you are a good enough pilot you can win against anything. I am a very good pilot, my specialty is weird maneuvers (Strikers, Echo, and Star Vipers are my favorites for a reason), and I bank on my ability to accurately visualize these unorthodox moves, and put my ships in unpredictable places. And my skill at maneuvers means I can win with almost anything against anything. Skill beats combos reliably.

Luck can still kick you in the nuts though.

That… was longer than I expected.

This is pretty much war gaming in a nutshell :-D

Glad to see that they have improved X-wing so much. Do they issue new cards when they change point values, or do you just have to print out an errata list? This is kind of what annoys me about GW games nowadays, with new errata released (seemingly) almost monthly.