8 Key Principles of Tabletop Skirmish Game Design
Tabletop skirmish game design is all about transforming an idea into a functional and congruent set of rules that create a captivating and immersive experience. But how do we do this? In this blog post we’ll start the process by delving into eight key principles of game design, exploring their application in the context of tabletop skirmish games.
Before we tackle the principles and technical side of game design, it’s important to ask ourselves a few questions. Why are we creating a game? What is the purpose of the game? What are we hoping players will gain from our game?
For me, Tabletop Skirmish Games provide us with a reason to get together to create fun times and awesome memories with our friends and family. I use that as my goal and keep it in mind throughout the process. Anytime I encounter a problem, I’ll ask whether or not the solution moves the game towards that goal. Once we have the why, now we can focus on the how, and that starts with key principles.
1. Clear Objectives and Goals: Guiding Players on the Battlefield
Establishing a Sense of Purpose
Objectives and goals act as the guiding stars in a skirmish, so it’s important to make them as clear as possible to the players in the Skirmish Plans (aka battle plans or mission briefings). Clearly stating the winning conditions and emphasising their importance creates a sense of purpose, motivating players to strategise, adapt, and work towards victory. Whether it's capturing key points on the battlefield, rescuing hostages, or securing valuable resources, clear objectives drive gameplay and immerse players in the narrative.
Fostering Motivation and Progression
Objectives give players a target and drive the game forward. They provide not only short-term challenges but also contribute to the overarching narrative and campaign progression. As designers, crafting objectives that align with the world we’ve created means that each skirmish contributes meaningfully to the larger story.
Many skirmishes include a winning objective and a secondary objectives. The winning objective can have rewards for achievement and consequences for failure, each having an impact on how future games are played out. Secondary objectives can give smaller bonuses during each skirmish but not have as big an impact on the narrative and it’s development. Although their impact is not as great, they can still be powerful motivators to keep the game flowing and keep the players thinking.
2. Balanced Gameplay: Creating Fair and Competitive Experiences
The Art of Equilibrium
Balancing gameplay mechanics is the delicate art of creating a level playing field. But do we always want a balanced playing field? Balance is a nuanced topic, and that’s a question I’ll address in future blog posts. As a key principle of game design we can simply think of using balance to create fair and competitive encounters, where victory hinges on strategy and skill rather than inherent advantages.
The tricky part of design is to put together factions, abilities, and resources that overlap and work together without allowing dominant strategies to emerge. The more complex the game, the more you’ll see dominant strategies showing up. Warhammer 40,000 is a prime example of a game that strives for balance yet unbalance lurks around every corner.
Competitive players will constantly be looking for an edge, seeking out areas they can exploit that help them to build armies that will win them more games rather than building armies that will be more fun to play. While ‘playing the meta’ is appealing to some, that isn’t how I like to play and it goes against my primary goal as a game creator.
Over Correction As A Result Of Poor Play-Testing
A balanced game is a strategic game. It allows players to explore various tactical approaches, experiment with different faction compositions, and devise unique strategies. Balancing elements within tabletop skirmish games preserves strategic depth, making each encounter a puzzle with no one-size-fits-all solution.
Play testing and iterative refinement are crucial to balancing a game. As we discussed in a previous blog post, what looks good on paper often doesn’t survive gameplay. If we go back to our Warhammer 40,000 example, the more complex the game the more difficult it becomes to achieve balance and that’s why we see so many changes to rules through errata and updates.
Adding too many factions, rushing a game to production without thorough play-testing and making decisions to sell models rather than improve gameplay all have negative effects on balancing a game. As the errata and updates become more frequent, more imbalances are created resulting in what can often become an unplayable - or at least unenjoyable - game. A new edition of the game then follows and the pattern repeats itself. I recommend being aware of this trap so you can avoid it in your game.
3. Meaningful Choices and Trade-offs: Engagement Through Decision-Making
Decisions that Resonate
Providing players with meaningful choices and trade-offs is a key principle that allows for the development of engaging gameplay. Decision-making in tabletop skirmish games ripples through tactical outcomes, resource allocation, and risk/reward scenarios. Each choice shapes the narrative of the skirmish, fostering an interactive and dynamic gaming experience.
We talked about how important decision making is in a previous post on the Gameplay Loop. Design a core set of rules that presents opportunities for players to make decisions and you’ll keep them focussed and engaged.
Meaningful choices ensure that players remain engaged throughout the game. Whether it's deciding between offensive or defensive manoeuvres, allocating resources strategically, or taking calculated risks, the decisions made on the battlefield will resonate with players, driving the narrative forward and creating unique outcomes.
Choices help to prevent games from becoming repetitive and boring. It’s so fun when you can play a skirmish or scenario a number of times and have totally different outcomes. Players should be able to approach a game with a new faction, character or ability and receive a different experience or perspective in the game that encourages use of different tactics and play styles.
4. Player Agency and Empowerment: The Heartbeat of Interaction
Empowering the Skirmisher
Player agency refers to the level of control, influence, and meaningful choices that a player has within a tabletop skirmish game. It represents the capacity of a player to shape and impact the course of events, outcomes, and the overall narrative within the game world you’ve created.
In games with a high degree of player agency, players often have the freedom to make decisions that significantly affect the game's progression, storylines, and outcomes. This can involve choices related to character development, narrative branching, strategic decisions, and interactions with the environment.
Player agency is a crucial aspect of game design as it enhances player engagement and immersion. When players feel that their decisions matter and have consequences, it creates a sense of ownership and investment in the game and the characters within it. Games that offer player agency often provide a more dynamic and personalised experience, allowing players to craft their unique stories within the game's framework.
Enhancing Narrative Immersion
Player agency is not only a mechanic but a narrative tool. Allowing players to influence the story through their choices and actions enriches the narrative and deepens the connection between players and their miniatures. This connection shouldn’t be underestimated. Players can often spend many hours painting their miniatures and I know I think about mine all the time!
In co-op games like Population Z, narrative immersion transforms the skirmish into a collaborative storytelling experience. Actions have meaningful consequences, how your characters behave affect future skirmishes, and how you achieve the objectives really starts to matter.
5. Immersive Narrative and World-building: The Soul of Skirmish Games
Beyond Miniatures and Dice
A captivating narrative and well-crafted world-building elevate skirmish games beyond mechanics. If you haven’t listened already, I highly recommend checking out my podcast episode with Suzie Johnston, narrative lead for the whimsical skirmish game, Moonstone. This episode was a fascinating insight into the mind of a writer focussing specifically on tabletop skirmish games.
During the podcast we talked about incorporating backstory, faction lore, and campaign progression to enrich player engagement. Doing this tales skirmish games beyond a series of battles—they become a living, breathing world where every miniature has a story to tell and a stake in the game.
Immersive narratives forge emotional connections. Players become invested in the fates of their miniatures, immersed in the lore of factions, and driven by the unfolding story. Well-crafted narratives transform skirmishes into memorable sagas, leaving a lasting impact on players. As we invest emotionally in our characters, we want to see them succeed and feel their pain when they fail.
Thinking about emotional investment brings me back to the ‘meta player’ example I used earlier. If you build a warband or army using only the characters or units that will give you a better chance of success, you miss the emotional investment. Games can become an exercise in mathematics rather than an exploration of emotions and storytelling. Again, there is nothing wrong with playing games how you want to play them, but I design games to ‘play’ rather than ‘compute’.
How you play your games is up to you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We have to go with games that resonate with us and our play style, and if you are anything like me, I think you’ll enjoy Population Z: Welcome to Huntsville that launches January 2024. I’ll keep you updated as we get closer to the launch!
6. Scalable Complexity: Welcoming All Skill Levels to the Table
Catering to Diverse Playstyles
Scalable complexity ensures that skirmish games are accessible to both novice and experienced players. Offering options to adjust rule complexity, campaign depth, and scenario intricacy accommodates different skill levels and play-styles. If you can create a game that allows newcomers and veterans to play against each other - and have a great time - that’s a big achievement.
I designed Population Z so that players have a lot of control over the complexity of the game. Players can choose difficulty levels by selecting varied numbers of survivors for each skirmish or adjusting the number of zombies on the battlefield at any one time. As players level up their characters, they should feel a progression along the ability chains that ensures they learn and fully absorb one ability before the next layer is added on. This layering means that the cognitive load isn’t overwhelming and the abilities feel intuitive as the game progresses.
Ensuring Lasting Enjoyment
A game that scales with complexity also ensures lasting enjoyment. New players can grasp the basics, while experienced players can delve into intricate strategies and discover fun combinations between characters and their abilities. Scalable complexity allows skirmish games to evolve with the players, offering new challenges and experiences over time.
I like tabletop skirmish games that have a pretty simple set of core mechanics for movement, combat, and interaction but with complexity that comes from the scenarios and the character abilities. Moonstone is a fantastic example of this, and each time I play it I find new intricacies that create fun and unpredictable outcomes.
7. Engaging Player Interaction: Fostering Bonds and Rivalries
Building Social Dynamics
Tabletop skirmish games extend beyond the table as they give us amazing opportunities to spend time with our friends and family. Co-operative games add another later to that as we work together to achieve a common goal or objective whilst creating memorable moments.
While I’m a big fan of cooperative games, competition can also be a fun aspect of gameplay as it builds camaraderie, strategic alliances, and sometimes intense rivalries! The tabletop becomes a stage for shared experiences, adventures and unforgettable stories; that’s why I love tabletop skirmish games.
Player interaction and the social aspect is a huge part of tabletop skirmish gaming but solo play has a lot to offer too. I like to think of solo gaming like playing a computer game or reading a book. While it’s awesome to play with other people, sometimes you want some time alone. When we read a good book, we are presented with questions, moral dilemmas, and something to think about long after we’ve put the book down. We can achieve this with solo tabletop skirmish game design too.
When you play solo games you get the chance to act out scenarios, role-play as characters and formulate a narrative entirely guided by your own actions. If you want to write a story, try and play it out on the tabletop first and document what happens. I think you’ll be surprised at how much it helps.
8. Iterative Design and Play-testing: Crafting the Masterpiece
The Journey of Refinement
Iterative design and play-testing are so important and I’ve written a separate blog post on it here. Soliciting feedback, identifying areas for improvement, and refining gameplay mechanics through iterative cycles ensure a polished and enjoyable gaming experience. Play-testers become collaborators, contributing to the evolution of the skirmish game and this in turn builds into the social aspect of gaming.
In Population Z the play-testing process has helped in so many areas from combat mechanics to ironing out little incongruences between feedback and rewards. As a game creator, you can write out a rule of mechanic that makes sense on paper but when it translates to the tabletop - and the interpretation of a player - it can often fall short. Play-testing allows you to pick out these areas and tweak them until they work as you initially planned.
From Concept to Production
The journey from concept to production is paved with iterations. Each play-test session, each adjustment based on feedback, refines the game. It's a collaborative process that shapes not only the mechanics but the overall experience.
Through iterative refinement, a skirmish game evolves, and as long as you keep the ‘why’ in mind throughout the process, you should get a final result you’ll be proud of.
8 Key Principles of Tabletop Skirmish Game Design
These 8 key principles of game design are a good starting point to guide you through the game design process. From clear objectives and balanced gameplay to meaningful choices and player empowerment, these principles shape the essence of skirmish games. As long as you keep the ‘why’ in mind throughout the process of game creation, I think you’ll get a final result to be proud of.
I hope you’ve found this blog post helpful and I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the subject, so join in the conversation in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!
Look out for my new game, Population Z: Welcome to Huntsville, launching in January 2024.