'Skirmish' is a nice, relatively simple Milton Bradley American Heritage/Command Decision game. Reading the BGG game Description and The Maverick’s review will give an excellent idea of the components, mechanics and general impression of the game.
As I’ve said before, I’ve moved on from – or maybe it’s more like moving back from - very long, serious and complicated board wargames and miniatures games, to games that are simpler to learn, fun to play, but still also have elements of strategy, something to learn, and are absorbing to play.
So I’ve been exploring the old American Heritage games to see whether they have a substance beneath the kids’ game exterior – whether there are any elements of real-world logic and genuine wargaming strategy to be savoured. So far, I have found ‘Broadside’ rewarding in this regard, ‘Dogfight’ less so, and ‘Hit The Beach’ not at all. The purpose of this review is to explore whether ‘Skirmish’ has more to offer than just cool ships and other pieces, a nice gameboard and die-rolling. And my conclusion is that it does.
Ships – at anchor or on the move?
On the coast, the players must decide whether they are going to use movement rolls to move their ships – or, for the American commander, make that ship, singular. There are three implications of ships in harbours to be taken into account. Firstly, an enemy ship in a harbour blocks a land army from turning up there by sea. Secondly, an enemy ship in a harbour will block the reinforcements ship from landing there later in the game. And thirdly, of course, an enemy ship in a well-placed harbour may set sail in due course and attempt to sink your reinforcements ship in transit.
So, it’s definitely worth factoring harbours and ships into your strategy. A ship can block an opposing army, or attack an enemy ship in harbour. But using a movement roll for a ship rather than an army will temporarily reduce the mobility of the player’s land forces for that turn.
Naval battles are won or lost on simple comparative die-rolls, so they are risky for both sides – but then again, the British have 3 warships to the Americans’ one.
Skirmishing – it’s the name of the game
Turning to the land forces, an important choice open to the American commander on land is between seeking to avoid the British armies while accumulating more units up to a ‘stack’ of reasonable fighting strength, or using the single units to skirmish frequently with them, in the hope of whittling them down. Putting aside the fact that lucky/unlucky movement die-rolls can obviously influence the success of either strategy, the Skirmish cards are key to this question. Because these cards are significantly weighted to the Americans (which is not unfair given the very different nature of the 2 forces, home ground advantages etc), the frequent skirmish option is not as suicidal as it might at first seem.
There are 24 Skirmish cards. Five of those produce a British loss of 1 or (in one case) 2 units - whereas only 2 produce an American loss. Three more permit the American to move his army without loss, and two allow the American commander to move the British army somewhere (again, without loss). Two cards indicate No Winner, and no losses either. So far then, half the Skirmish cards are either favourable for the Americans or involve no immediate downside, and two are bad news for the Yanks.
But there’s more. There are 4 Evenly Matched cards, two of which provide for a die-roll with the lower roll losing 1 unit (so the American therefore has an equal chance even with a much smaller force) and the other two make both sides lose one unit (which is probably better than an average Major Battle result). Two cards allow the British to move the American unit (which may admittedly result in a disadvantageous placement, but is still not a loss, yet), and four cards dictate that a Major Battle takes place. As we are examining the cards with a strategy of not accumulating units in mind, a Major Battle will generally be bad news for the American unit – but, even then, 2 of the 4 cards make the British lose a unit before the battle is joined!
So, even if your American force is only one unit, the British definitely lose at least one unit when 9 out of the 24 cards (37.5%) are drawn, and 2 more give the much weaker American force an equal chance of victory. Another nine cards result in no immediate loss to the Americans, leaving only four (or 16.7%) that are totally bad news for them. As we will often be considering an American force that is very much smaller than the opposition, skirmishing is definitely an option to be considered seriously. Even if you build up a big American army, the outcomes then will still largely turn on the die-rolls (ie, even chance or thereabouts).
Other relevant features
I’ve really only concentrated in detail on two elements of ‘Skirmish’ that involve some strategy considerations, but other features of the game also place it ahead of other dice-rollers for the younger set.
The asymmetry between the forces, in terms of army strength and movement, makes for an interesting change – even if it’s not quite ‘The Russian Campaign’ or ‘Battle for Armageddon’.
The ability to move armies between ports opens up, in a modest way, the possibility sometime of a dramatic escape or a daring flanking manoeuvre.
The victory conditions also play an important role. A competent British commander should not be diverted into cleaning up outlying American units, but should focus on eliminating the enemy’s leadership, by destroying Washington’s Continental Army unit. And this provides a real sense of urgency on the American side to evade and protect the leader – other successes will count for nought if the Continental Army falls. [As Karls’s Session Report testifies, the game can sometimes prove to be quite cut-throat and unforgiving!]
The use of stacking unit counters for the armies permits step reduction of a kind that is found in much more sophisticated wargames.
And I like the triggers for reinforcements – for the British it is losing an army to the local riff-raff (you can almost feel the sense of outrage), whereas for the Americans it is winning a Major Battle (clearly a recruiting advantage).
Relevant dislikes? It’s just a simple game, really, and quite endearing in its way – so I’m willing to permit it some shortcomings.
I would maybe have liked the Americans to be able to move faster than the British, rather than just moving two units to their one – but I guess this isn’t ‘Mosby’s Raiders’ either.
And I didn’t mind the randomness of the Skirmish Card mechanism, as they are weighted but still have risks for both sides, and in real world conflicts the outcomes and consequences of skirmishes can be very unpredictable.
I’m sure you could develop a few house rules for ‘Skirmish’ that would enhance realism and permit more strategy [like a CRT for the Major Battles, modifiers for defending in cities etc], but I don’t know if it’s warranted really. The game is good fun (and a little testing) as is.
[Post Script: I forgot to mention - In my opinion, 'Skirmish' can play OK as a solo game too, but you need (at least) to not look at what the British movement die roll is until after you move the American pieces.]
- Last edited Tue Sep 25, 2007 8:01 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Sep 25, 2007 5:28 am
Thank you for giving this neglected title some respect as a light, but worthwhile, AWI game.
I've thought for a long time that "Skirmish" was the most successful of the "Command Decision" line at bringing history to the game table.
Appearing when it did, during the time when Vietnam had turned off the gaming public to anything approaching a "war" game, it stood little chance of being appreciated on its merits.
With the rise of more complex and sophisticated "conflict simulations" at the same time, "Skirmish" was too "simple" (often regarded as synonymous with "simplistic," which is often not so) to garner respect from the wargaming public. At the time, I didn't bother to buy one.
About ten years ago, I found a thrift store copy and was delighted to discover that the game has merit. Of all the "Command Decision" games, "Skirmish" is most deserving of a reprint, possibly with some of refinements you note.
I had this as a teenager, and enjoyed playing it. I bought it again when my daughter was studying the American Revolution, but we have yet to play it.
It is a good game, with surprising depth and a decent way of capturing the characteristics of the two armies. Plus, it has cards, maybe the first CDG.
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
You negleted to mention some important tactical elements:
1. In a major battle, the outcome is decided by a WEIGHTED die roll. The side with more units involved adds the difference of the number of units to his roll. There is a stacking limit of 5 basic units plus the command unit represented by a figure on top. Even so, this means for example that the British SHOULD force major battles while the american forces are still scattered.
2. Skirmishes are settled immeidately but major nattles are settled only at the end of the round, i.e., after the British player moves.
3. The American player knows which piece the British player will move because the British player must indicate after players roll. The American player just does not know WHAT the British player rolled.
I would also add that in my experience the American player MUST use Skirmishes to whittle down the British forces especially initially.
The British player must move his forces to attack the Washington piece ASAP and much of the British strategy involves surrounding and isolating George.
Clarification: the American moves both of his units as indicated by the two dice roles, then he conducts skirmishes or major battes.
Rule III. SKIRMISH TAKES PLACE AT THE END OF A PLAYER'S MOVE --
Rule IV. MAJOR BATTLE. 1. At the END of players' moves . . . a Major Battle takes place.
In this regard, the Americans can possibly execute 2 skirmishes, but only 1 major battle since armies are moved apart after a major battle.
House rule: "moved apart" one space due to a skirmish means attacker is moved back to the dot from which he came, while the defender is moved exactly in the opposite direction if possible. This eliminates heated debates about who moves first and gaining advantages retreats.
House Rule: RETREATS after Major Battles -- if attacker loses, he retreats back to dot from which he came, while the defender remains on the battleground. If the attacker wins then he retains possession of the battlefield while the defender is retreated one space (attacker's choice).