Monday, 4 July 2011

From the vault: Go Hard or Go Home

Several years ago I wrote a number of articles on the club website, much of it not dissimilar to the sort of thing I have been writing on this blog. I may dig some of this stuff up over the next couple of weeks, provided that its content has not dated so badly that it no longer makes sense. First up though, I have an article that I wrote back in early 2007, but never got around to posting (the reason is lost in the mists of time).

And yeah, I seemed to use a lot of footnotes back in those days. I think writers in White Dwarf were doing it too, so maybe I was influenced by them...

The Elf and the Daemon
Donald hears the voices too...
Whenever I sit down to make a Warhammer army, I find myself in two minds about how I want to approach it. The little invisible High Elf on my right shoulder tells me that I should make a nice, balanced army. After all, Warhammer is a game, and I play it to have fun. My competitor is probably doing the same, so I should make sure I don’t pick an army that leads to an unbalanced (and potentially less than fun) game. But then from over my left shoulder comes the (rather sinister and intimidating) voice of the invisible Bloodthirster, telling me that you play games to compete. Warhammer is a contest between two generals, and it is the responsibility of each player to field a competitive force and try to out-play his opponent. He also howls for blood and threatens me with his big axe, but that is neither here nor there.

I find it funny to think about it, but I never used to have this problem. Every game used to be about making as hard (or tricksy) an army as I could, and endeavouring to school up my opponent as quickly and comprehensively as possible. This was back in the days before I played in clubs, and the only opponents I had were my friends who approached the game in much the same way. There were about half a dozen of us, and total domination was the order of the day. Each new and dastardly trick that a player came up with would lead to several solutions being devised, and the cycle would repeat itself.

This approach might sound less than fun to a lot of you, but it was how we all played the game, and therein lay the important point. We all approached the game the same way, and we played as much to compete with each other as we did for the sheer enjoyment of the hobby. I knew what to expect when I made my army, and I had no qualms about making my force as hard as possible in order to try to counter whatever my opponent had in mind.

In the early years after we started playing at the club and in tournaments, this approach didn’t change very much. We were still playing 5th Edition Warhammer; the glory days of power gaming. The variety of opponents increased somewhat, giving us an opportunity to try our hands at beating up on some new and different armies.

Taming the Beast
Over time however, things changed. New editions of Warhammer were released, altering the composition of armies – forcing players to field a minimum number of the sort of units they may have dismissed before. Characters and monsters were toned down somewhat (yes, they were tougher before), and the game was more heavily focused on regiments. In addition to this, the approach of tournament organisers changed. They started awarding more and more points for sportsmanship, army composition and painting – things that previously were nowhere near as important as winning battles. This was an attempt to attract more players to the tournament scene, and make it more appealing to those who had never entered a competition before.

In line with these changes, our armies had to adapt. It was no longer legal to field entire armies of Wardancers, Treemen and Dryads (although it is again now – go figure). In effect, my armies were toned down; they ceased to be the ruthlessly competitive forces that they were, and started to include “softer” elements. In particular, the shift in the tournament scene had a big impact. Not only did I have to field at least 3 Core units in 2000 points, but I had to spend 40% or even 50% of my points on them if I wanted to avoid being penalised. Furthermore, competitive players were starting to be hamstrung by the balance of scoring in the competitions. People who had previously dominated the tournament scene were continuing to win games (sometimes even get maximum battle points for the entire tournament), but then ended up in the middle of the field once the other aspects of scoring were taken into account. This did not go unnoticed.

To be honest, once we knew how the scoring of army composition worked in this new breed of tournaments, a lot of us just made the hardest armies we could under these tougher restrictions. There were a number of times when I fielded armies that just eased under two or three of the restrictions by the narrowest of margins. Thus the theme continued – pushing as hard as we could to make the toughest armies permitted.

Think Green
I think it was only when I really started to branch out in terms of the races I was fielding that I started to lose this attitude a bit. I had always been a Wood Elf and High Elf player. As such, I was used to fielding small, disciplined armies with very expensive troops. But then I managed to effectively inherit an Orc and Goblin army from a friend who was moving overseas. They had always amused me, and when I finally got around to making an army of them I quickly became addicted to how many troops you could squeeze into a single army. For a player moving from ridiculously expensive High Elves, this was a real shock to the system.

It wasn’t long before I was painting up an army of greenskins and taking them into a tournament. The difference this time was that I was not actually expecting to compete for the top positions in the event. I knew my army was less than perfect, and even if it had been carefully thought out, it would still have been unreliable. I think the fact that this didn’t bother me enough to stop me fielding them was an indication that the change had begun. Not only did I field them in a tournament, I took them into pretty much every event I entered for the next three or four years. Over time the army evolved a bit as I painted more stuff, but I never really challenged for a place in any event.

The Elder Race
Clearly there is a therapeutic benefit to using Orcs and Goblins (especially for High Elf players), but eventually I felt obliged to turn to one of the armies that had been gathering dust for a long time. The fact that many players at the club didn’t even know that I was an Elf player should have been indication enough that it was time to move on from the Orcs. So with this in mind, I put aside my new addiction and went back to using Wood Elves.

At this point the Wood Elves were a temporary army (in the sense that it was around for years, but somehow less official than the new real book, which may well last less time than it did), and I was forced to take oodles of archers in order to satisfy the Core requirements in the tournaments I was entering. This went against my better judgement (I have never thought that highly of archers, especially when compared against some of the combat elements available to a Wood Elf player), but I didn’t have any spearmen (then called Glade Guard), and didn’t want any. Spears are for High Elves – Wood Elves use bows1.

I had mixed results with my Wood Elves, and turned instead to my High Elves. In order to try to avoid the negative sentiment I had heard against High Elf magic and shooting (and against all-cavalry armies), I fielded what I felt was a pretty balanced force: an almost all-infantry army, centred around combat blocks with a couple of mages, 2 bolt throwers and a unit of archers. My army proceeded to do quite well, coming second at the end of the first day before falling into a tragic hole on day two due to some horror rolling (not a new experience for me).

Sour Grapes
After the completion of the tournament, I was reasonably happy with how my return to Elves had gone. That is, with the exception of some of my opponents’ reactions. After one game with Wood Elves I heard my opponent telling a friend that “you’d have to be a moron to lose with Wood Elves”. OK fair enough, he lost. But I would imagine he would have been pleased to have taken the shine off the occasion with a sentiment like that. Throughout the tournament I heard complaints about the amount of magic, shooting and close combat in my army2. And then one of my opponents when I was using High Elves was man enough to log onto WargamerAU and rubbish my army and complain about the amount of magic and shooting I had (this coming from a Tzeentch player with twice the magic I had and just as much shooting, and after I killed at least 75% of his army in close combat).

The upshot of all this is that I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, courtesy of the reactions of my opponents. I know that you can’t make everyone happy, but after fielding two less-than-optimal armies, I was left wondering why I had bothered.

Perhaps in a knee-jerk reaction to all of this backlash, I returned to playing Orcs and Goblins. Nobody had complained about them in the past, so it felt safe. I could have persisted with playing Elves, but then I figured that I would lose marks for army composition if I made any attempt to field a moderately competitive force, and I would end up being despised again. Unsurprisingly, I decided it was easier just to use my Orcs.

Something Stirs in the Forest…
But then the Wood Elf book arrived, and things changed again. I had always wanted to be able to field a tree army (a force entirely of Dryads and Treemen), and the new book made this possible. It was a little while before I actually acted on this plan however, because when the book was first released there was talk that at least half a dozen players at the club were starting to collect Wood Elves. I didn’t want to be seen as one of the mob jumping on the band wagon of the new army, but eventually it became clear that not one of those people was actually going to follow through with their plans, so I finally got a wriggle-on in time to enter the army into Cancon.

Due to my supreme organisational skills, I barely got a practice game in with my army before the tournament. In the two games that I did play, the army performed surprisingly well (aided by a little luck) and cleaned up their opposition. As it turned out, this was a hint of what was to come. The trees rampaged through Cancon and emerged victorious at the end of the tournament. I had (rather unexpectedly) won my first tournament in a long time.

I borrowed a Vampire Counts army for the next tournament I played in, which was Conquest. I have always loved being able to raise masses of skeletons and zombies and besieging the enemy army from all sides. That being the case, the army was loaded with magic and this was not necessarily well received by my opponents. A friend borrowed my all-tree army and altered it a little to allow him to use the special character Drycha. I met him in the second round and beat him reasonably comfortably, which made me feel a little better about having fielded the army in Cancon – clearly it was not unbeatable. However, despite my legions of the dead leading after the first day, I fell in a hole and ended up mid-field.

The third and final tournament I played in last year was the Melbourne GT, which was billed as being “for gamers”. By this, they meant that the scoring favoured battle results, and painting and composition were less important than they might be elsewhere. Taking this into consideration (and the fact that I had proven to myself that they weren’t unbeatable anyway), I took the trees again. I had enjoyed using them at Cancon and I figured I might as well give them a last hurrah before retiring them in their current form from tournaments. If anything, the GT ended up going even better for me than Cancon did, and I wound up winning that too. The trees were undefeated in 14 tournament games, and were going out on a high.

The Daemon’s Trump
At this point I felt I could go back to fielding far less competitive armies and finishing middle-of-the-road in tournaments, however I hadn’t counted on the lure of the Masters. This tournament happens annually and invitations are based on players’ success at tournaments throughout the year. Given the glorious rampage of my trees, I had qualified for a Masters invite3. Unfortunately, my brother in law was getting married that weekend, so I had to decline the invitation.

True to my plan, I ceased to use the tree army in tournaments and went back to my Orcs, who had just received a nice, shiny new army book that made them even better than before. Suddenly Wyverns were worth taking, and against my better judgement I found myself taking a practically naked Savage Orc Warboss riding one of the great scaly beasts into Cancon4. This may seem ill-advised, however there was a certain element of method in my madness. The Warboss and his mount were an utterly lethal combination regardless of their lack of protection, and they were backed up by the most brutal collection of Black Orcs and Big’Uns I have ever fielded.

Much as I might have liked to tell myself that the army was just funny, the invisible Bloodthirster behind my right shoulder had started whispering to me about qualifying for the Masters this year. His voice was much stronger than that of the feeble High Elf on the other side, having been encouraged by the carnage inflicted by the Wood Elves, and the promise that the new Orc book held. The Masters will be in Melbourne this year, he tells me. Attending will be easy; all I have to do as make sure I qualify.

The Orcs did respectably in Cancon (although rather predictably the crazy Warboss on his Wyvern managed to get himself killed in more than half of the games), but they didn’t shine the way the Bloodthirster had been hoping. Dissatisfied with this, it convinced me that I should once more borrow the Vampire Counts, and try to magic my enemies into the dust. If nothing else, I would get to raise lots of guys. This is indeed what happened, but overall my performance was woeful.

Blood for the Blood God
And now I eye off Conquest again, and I try to decide what army to use. The High Elf tells me that I should choose something where I have to paint models in order to field the army (as he knows that this is the only way I ever get anything done). The Bloodthirster tells me I have to redeem myself and get moving on my quest to qualify for the Masters, and threatens me again with his big axe. I find myself looking once more at a Wood Elf army, with Drycha making her big return after last year (but this time on my side of the table, rather than my opponent’s). If I field Wild Riders I will need to paint them, the Daemon says. This will satisfy the puny Elf and make the army different from what I used before. A friend tells me I should use Orion instead, because he’s bigger and meaner. He also thinks I should be trying to qualify for the Masters. He whispers the same things as the Bloodthirster – they work for the same Dark Powers. He mocks the High Elf on my shoulder (as he does all High Elves) and tells me to ignore his “wisdom”. I should make my army as hard as I can, and try to dominate everyone I meet.

As a wise green Master once said:

“Once you start down the Dark Path, forever will it dominate your destiny…”

  1. I know for a fact that there are people who disagree with me here, but that is the way it shall remain. The stereotypical Wood Elf carries a bow and skulks in forests. Regiments of spearmen are firmly in the camp of High Elves. I don’t know how much these people’s opinions stemmed from their firm dislike of mountains of archers, but regardless I think they’re wrong.
  2. This all leads me to the conclusion that players are far too inclined to blame the opposing armies for any inadequacies either they or their army may have. I’m sure it’s not possible for an army to be too strong in every aspect of the game at once, so it’s clearly a matter of their varying perspectives.
  3. It has to be said that the concept of the Masters tournament alone would probably not be enough to lure me all the way to Brisbane. However, the “sealed section” of the tournament, during which you play 3 games using randomly allocated armies from other players, is a brilliant idea and something I felt was too good to miss. But things don’t always work out the way we might like, and I couldn’t attend anyway.
  4. Those of you who are familiar with my tale of woe will know that the Wyvern never made it to Cancon. He stayed at home on the dining room table (no, that was not the plan), and my Warboss found himself riding a purple Treeman for the duration of the tournament. Doubtless this affected his performance. It may have had a permanent impact upon his masculinity as well (if Orcs have such a thing)…

… and now, Back to the Future

OK, so a number of things have changed in the time since I wrote this article. For one, the Wood Elf book has gone from new and shiny to pretty long in the tooth. Happily I was wrong, and it has actually lasted longer than the get-you-by list it replaced. I think most of us are ready for a new book now, but it may still be a way off…

As it turns out, the voice of the little High Elf on my shoulder has proven to be a more defining influence on my gaming than the tiny Bloodthirster has been. Much to the daemon’s frustration (and that of a number of my friends), I have fielded some rather funny and ineffectual lists over the last few years. It has been a long time since I realistically challenged for winning a tournament, let alone trying to get to the Masters.

Out of interest, the Masters never came to Melbourne and they dropped the “sealed” section of the tournament the year after I qualified. This saddens me and pretty much killed any serious desire I may have had for getting there. A number of friends have since attended, however it all sounds a bit much like “serious business” for me nowadays, anyway.

So, I can conclusively say that in the time since I wrote this article, I have gone soft. I have gone from vacillating between rock-hard lists and funny con-competitive ones, and have solidly plopped myself down in the camp of those who turn up to play on the middle tables and have fun. It may be that I will change my mind at some point, but for the moment I am pretty happy where I am.


  1. Well, so long as next time we play 500, you still 'bring it', I don't mind having a more even game of Warhammer :P

  2. How am I meant to "bring it" when you get the suits mixed up and bid 10 of the wrong thing?!?