Playing By The Rules - A Guide to 15mm Rulesets

For new gamers, one of the most daunting aspects of 15mm Sci-Fi is the wide variety of available rulesets.  When it comes to traditional "big games"  (Warhammer 40,000, Infinity, Battletech, Firestorm Armada, etc.), you typically buy your rules and miniatures from a single company.  Sure, you can proxy other minis or use those minis with other rules, but the overwhelming majority will use those rules and figures exactly as the manufacturer intends.
15mm is different.  The manufacturers are one- or two-man operations, so you won't find much of their product in game shops (yet).  Some do publish their own rules, but all expect and encourage their figures to be mixed, matched, and used in any way we desire.  But if you're a newcomer, or even an experienced 15mm gamer wanting to try something different - where in the world do you start?
There are numerous rulesets available - we cannot hope to cover them all, or properly illustrate the differences between each set.  But we can break them into general categories, tell you how much you should expect to pay or where to download the free PDF, how many figures you can use, and maybe some of our personal opinions on how they handle 15mm games.

Battle Rules with Multiple Figures Per Base.  These games are generally played by mounting fireteams of 2-6 infantry onto round, square, or rectangular bases.  Ideal for balanced tournament-style play, or for playing massive armor-heavy games.  The main options in this category are:
  • Critical Mass.  The flagship game from Critical Mass Games - it is specifically tailored to their factions.  £12 for a 100-page printed book.  Available here.
  • Future War Commander.  A very flexible and open game system, reviewed awhile back by Mark.  It did feature premade army lists of the 15mm lines at its time of publication, but it hasn't been updated with any of the last few years' worth of new products (it does have a robust system for generating your own stats and forces).  Available online from the publisher's webstore here for £12, also available from many online and brick-and-mortar retailers.
  • Hammer's Slammers: The Crucible.  Plays armor-centric battles in the style of David Drake's novels.  The game's homepage is here, with a collection of eye candy you'll have to see to believe.  The rulebook can be purchased here for £25; there are also starter sets with Old Crow tanks.
  • Alien Squad Leader. Designed to capture that classic b-movie feel.  Also reviewed earlier by Mark, so we won't go into many details here.  Available here for £12.
  • Galactic War I.  Blue Moon Manufacturing's game supports the Space Opera styling of their miniatures, but it's open enough to use with any models you have.  Available here for $25.
  • Valkyrie.  Designed to support ArtCrime Productions' line of miniatures.  Currently available as a PDF download - soon to be available as a standalone product.
  • Traveller: Striker.  One of the granddaddies of 15mm Sci-Fi gaming.  There have been several different versions of the Traveller  RPG over the years (Little Black Books, GURPS, New Era, etc.), and there's a Striker game available for most of them.

Battle Rules with Single-Based Figures.  These are probably the most common type of science fiction wargame.  You'll have anywhere from a few fireteams to a platoon-plus per side, along with some support vehicles, flyers, walkers, tunnelers, and just about anything else you can imagine.  This is a very broad category - feel free to let us know (and don't be offended!) if we missed any major player.
  • Tomorrow's War. Ambush Alley and Osprey Publishing's beautiful sci-fi game, based on their successful Force On Force engine. Available as a $25 PDF or $35 printed version here. You can read Matt's detailed review here.  
  • 5150: Star Army.  A unique game from Two Hour Wargames, using their Chain Reaction engine to provide some very unpredictable situations.  Available here as a $20 PDF or $25 printed book.
  • Gruntz 15mm. Instead of creating a generic book, author Robin Fitton made a tremendous effort getting the 15mm manufacturing community's support in this ruleset.  Thomas' detailed review is found here.  PDF format, available for $9 from Wargames Vault.  
  • Fireteam Andromeda. Written by Two Knights Publishing, this platoon-level game features a very clever command and control system. Available here for $15.23
  • Quadrant 13. A science fiction game from Too Fat Lardies, based upon their popular I Ain't Been Shot Mum game. Available here for £9.50.
  • Fast And Dirty. Author Ivan Sorensen offers one of the most complete game systems you'll ever find for free, and it gives most pay-to-play rulesets a run for their money.  Available here as a free download.  
  • FUBAR. A very enjoyable one-page game from Craig Cartmell's Forge Of War Development Group.  Experienced gamers will appreciate not having to flip through pages of rules, charts, or reference sheets to figure out what's supposed to happen.  Free download here.  
  • USE ME (TITLE 001). A very slick little game.  These are generic rules, but it takes very little time to create detailed stats for any model in your collection. We strongly recommend you check out the Danger On Outpost 32 boxed set - it's a perfect introduction to 15mm SF gaming. You can buy the printed A6 version here for £3.50, or as a downloadable full-sized PDF here for $5. There are several variant titles (Post Apocalyptic, Zombie Dawn, Cyberpunk, etc.) if you want a bit more flavor in the game.
  • Forge Of War. The flagship game from the development group of the same name. This ruleset started out as an alternate way to use Games Workshop miniatures, but has grown into a very solid game system.  Free download here.  
  • Beamstrike.  An open-source game based on the old Imperial Commander rules.  Download rules and supplements from here.
  • Defiance: Vital Ground. We can't find many reviews or battle reports with this system from Majestic 12 Games.  But it appears to have a very robust points-based army creation system.  There is a free demo on their website; the full version is a $20 PDF or $30 printed book.
  • Stargrunt II.  Jon Tuffley's classic game, designed for the Ground Zero Games ranges but suitable for any miniatures.  Free PDF download here.  
  • Imperial Commander.  The battle version of the Laserburn skirmish game (see below).  Printed book available here for £5.50.
  • WarEngine.  A free online continuation of the old ShockForce game.  These are presented in a Wikipedia format.  Available here

Small Skirmish Games.  These games are played with just a handful of miniatures per side.  They usually have an emphasis on heroic characters, cinematic skirmishes, tracking money, resources, and injuries between scenarios.  These are hybrids between Role Playing Games and full Tabletop Wargames.  We should mention that most were originally designed for use with 28mm figures, but they still provide very satisfying games with 15mm minis.
  • Blasters & Bulkheads.  A cinematic space opera game pitting bounty hunters, smuggler captains, Essence warriors, and teams of henchmen against one another.  $9.95 PDF, available here.
  • 5150: New Beginnings. A very detailed RPG-with-miniatures set in the 5150 universe (see above). Available here as a $20 PDF or $25 printed book.
  • Mutants and Death Ray Guns/Flying Lead.  Both titles are from Ganesha Games.  MaDRG has a post-apocalyptic feel (mutated animals, broken-down cyborgs, etc.), while Flying Lead can very comfortably handle conventional near-future skirmishes.  Both are $8 PDFs available here.
  • AE: Bounty.  Publisher Darkson Designs uses a unique system of templates to create crews of mercenaries, bounty hunters, and other types of intergalactic scum. $15 for the PDF here.
  • In The Emperor's Name. In its current form, ItEN is designed to play small skirmishes in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  However, it does have a robust character creation system, and its scenarios and campaign system are equally suited for 15mm games.  The Forge Of War Development Group is adapting it into a generic sci-fi skirmish under the working title of Blaster.  Free download here
  • Laserburn. The father of Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader.  40K fans will quickly recognize the concepts presented in this skirmish game.  Printed book available here for £6.50, advanced rules and record pads are also available.
  • Gut Check/Throwdown.  A solo game developed by SpaceJacker.  It's still a bit of a work in progress, but the game is playable with just a bit of troop-creation effort. Free download here.  
  • We Can Be Heroes II.  Designed to be a very light-hearted game - imagine playing out an action/adventure movie on your tabletop. $12.95 PDF available here.  
  • Star Mogul/Salvage Crew.  Pits crews of adventurers, mercenaries, and alien treasure seekers against each other in small skirmishes, with an emphasis on campaigns and resource tracking.  Free PDF download here.  
So which is best for you?  There are no right or wrong answers (no matter what you might get told on some blogs or forums). If you really don't know where to start, the best thing you can do is paint up a few minis, download a few of the free games on this list, and try them out.  From there, you can try out other free sets, or purchase one or two of the commercial options.  You'll quickly discover what kind of mechanics you like, what you dislike, how much of your own work you're willing to put into the game, and what type of game experience you ultimately want to have.