Belated update

What I’m Looking For in a Skirmish Game: Activations

Now that I've had several years of playing skirmish games under my belt (as opposed to mass combat games), I've probably gone through the whole spectrum from glee like a kid in a candy store being told he can have anything he wants... to a kind of weary "been there, done that" attitude.

We are also in an amazing time where there are so many rules sets to choose from. You want old school fast skirmish with 16 pages of rules? Gotcha. You want 100+ pages with super crunchy rules? Covered. You want fantasy/SF/post-apo/cyberpunk/Renaissance/Napoleonic? All covered.

So with such an embarrassment of riches, I've decided to slim down the games I play and focus on... a dozen or so. (That's called slimming down, mind you.) I decided to give some thought to what I'm looking for in a skirmish game. With that in mind, this'll be an occasional post on some of my thoughts, starting with:


So I’m definitely not a fan of IGO-UGO systems (with a very few exceptions*) as the potential to have half your forces wiped out by the first turn a real possibility. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ll accept straight up alternating activations as that’s definitely better than IGO-UGO but that doesn’t fully represent the chaos of the fog of war. I now prefer variable/uncertain/alternating activations if possible.

Examples can be the Bolt Action/Gates of Antares die pull system because you don’t know who’s going to go next... and then when your unit does get to go you have to do a command check for units with pins so there’s also the uncertainty of whether they will actually do what you want or not. Excellent!

A variant on this one is the Judge Dredd/Strontium Dog system with the chip pull and the Star chip where you can try to put your model’s chip back in the bag again, potentially giving you extra activations but penalising you with a pin if you fail.

Then there’s the uncertainty of systems like Dragon/Lion Rampant where if you fail to activate a unit then the other side now has initiative. I know some folks are not fans of that system but if you read historical accounts of battles you can find all kinds of anomalies where units fail to do what the commander wants them to do... all due to command and control issues. 

There’s the play-it-safe or push-your-luck method of A Song of Blades and Heroes/Sellswords & Spellslingers. Play it too safe and you may run out of time or get overwhelmed before you can complete your objective. Push your luck too much and you might hand the initiative over to the other side. 

The X-Hammer (Squad, Chrome etc.) series of games has you rolling 2 dice and taking the score of one of them. That’s how many actions you can perform this turn. Too bad if you roll a ‘2’ and you have 5 models on the table. Conversely if you roll a ‘6’ and you have 4 models,on the table, the excess actions are wasted. 

Pulp Alley (at least in co-op/PvP mode) has the player with initiative declare which side will activate with every model... until they lose the initiative. And initiative can change hands several times in a turn, so you’re always invested in the game. So depending on the scenario and if you have the activation, it might be advantageous for you to let the other side go first... until someone wanders too close to your side and then you can activate your model to take a shot at them. Excellent! (For solo mode, it’s more a IGO-UGO method of activation... but even then there’s a card that makes you switch sides mid-activation so it’s not all bad. IGO-UGO is also more palatable in a solo situation).

Lastly I want to mention the entire 2-Hour Wargames system where with the exception of your ‘star’ model (representing you on the table) it’s not certain if the rest of your models will do what you want them to do. Better quality troops naturally have a better chance of that. The good need is it’s the same for the other side as well. I can’t think of any other system that’s so suitable for solo skirmish play. Just be prepared to do lots and lots of dice rolling and looking up tables for nearly everything that you do.

So what do you prefer? Traditional IGOUGO? Alternating activations? Or some of the more exotic alternatives I've outlined above?

*A notable one being Infinity where its cheer-leader style IGO-UGO system is certainly unique. The only reason why this works is because the non-active side (the side without initiative) can have unlimited ARO’s so that if you set up your fire lanes properly, for every activating mode; that comes into LOS you can have 2 or 3 models firing back at it! Sometimes I even prefer to NOT activate and just wait for the other guy to come at me because I’ve a pretty good chance of taking him down!

Another one is Warmachine/Hordes where the synergy between the different units/leaders practically demands an IGO-UGO style activation. But yes. Both this game and the GW games have the potential to table or assassinate the leader at the end of turn 1 or top of turn 2. 


  1. I personally prefer die pull myself. The uncertainty adds to the solo game. Any form of uncertainty (as long as it feels fair) is a good thing for me.

    This is also why I prefer PEFs/blips etc.


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