Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Warhammer: Where is the Skill? (Part 1)

A brief note:
This was intended to be a single post, however as I got typing I realised it was going to become overly long. I have decided to break it up into multiple segments. Here is the first... 

Since Warhammer 8th edition was released, I have heard (or read) a lot of people stating that some or all of the skill in the game is gone. Warhammer is now all about huge units rolling a billion dice and everything dying in massive grinding combats, before someone decides the game with a monstrous, broken spell.

I do not deny that 8th edition has seen a dramatic shift in terms of unit sizes and models killed. I also agree that a lot of the knobbing about with fiddly angles and fractions of inches has gone out of the game (and despite what people may tell you about the “art” of using diverters in 7th edition, I think this is a good thing). However, I have to disagree with people who state that the skill has gone out of the game.

A general lack of perspective?
I believe that as wargamers in general, we tend to take a lot of the skill involved in our games for granted. There are many things we do instinctively, and we dismiss these things as just a basic part of playing the game. In years gone by, I remember I used to snort derisively at people talking about Warhammer being a tactical game. My thoughts ran along the lines of, “There are no tactics in Warhammer. Its all about army selection, choosing your targets and rolling the dice.”

You only need to look at the difference between a beginner Warhammer player and an experienced one to know that there is skill involved in the game. Granted, there is a period where the beginner wont even know the rules, and as such cant even play the game as intended. However, even once they know the rules, it will be some time before they can stand up to a veteran player who is actually intent on beating them. What is the difference? Experience. Or in other words, skill.

An obvious shift
One of the most obvious skills in previous editions of Warhammer was the estimation of distances. Artillery had to guess ranges, meaning that a poor judge of distance would never hit anything at all. More importantly however, you had to work out whether you were in charge range, and whether your opponent would be. Getting a charge distance wrong by a fraction of an inch has cost countless players games of Warhammer in years gone by. Players would also throw spells, only to watch their opponent decline to dispel the attempt, and then discover what their opponent already knew: that they were out of range of their target.

The skill of range estimation is now gone. You can measure whatever you want, whenever you want. There is now no excuse for casting a spell, only to discover its out of range. Likewise, Stone throwers now place their templates exactly where you want them, with only the artillery and scatter dice between you and a direct hit.

At first I was dismayed to hear that you could measure anything, anytime. Like so many players, I felt this removed an element of skill from the game. Maybe it did, however I have come to accept it (although I still feel like Im cheating every time I go to pre-measure anything). But there are a few elements I didnt consider at first, which I am not sorry to see gone.

You would hear about players who got up to such antics as pre-measuring their body parts (no, not like that. Not those body parts. Shut up!). People would know how wide their handspan was, or how long their forearm was for when they were leaning over the table. I admit, I never saw a lot of this. But I did see people standing back from the table, pulling out a tape measure, and trying to gauge how far 16” was before coming back to the table and stating their intentions. I also saw lots of people declaring certain actions so that the measuring of those could be used to influence later, more important decisions. I cant say this was against the rules, but it had a certain feel of gamesmanship to it.

I also got sick to death of people fidgeting with their models. When a fraction of an inch could make the difference between being in charge range or failing, or being in the flank of a unit, or any number of other things, there was a real emphasis on getting the final location of your unit exactly right. Far enough to be out of range, but close enough that my opponent (who is hopefully an inferior judge of distance, or over-eager and optimistic) will decide to declare the charge and then fail. There is nothing inherently wrong with this it was a fundamental part of the game. However, the amount of time some people could waste on it was enough to bring you to tears. I do not miss this.

Most experienced players ended up being highly accurate judges of distance. The general mastery of estimation was widespread, which often exacerbated my point above, regarding fiddling (when you know your opponent is a good judge of distance, your placement must be that much more precise). It also meant that your average cannon was pretty much laser-guided anyway, so making them “guess” instead of measure was almost redundant.

When the game comes down to tiny fractions of inches, the atmosphere is ripe for arguments and differences of opinion. Tape measures do not make for an ultra-precise environment, especially with things balanced on the edges of hills, and not everyone applying the manoeuvring rules with the same level of precision. How many times have you seen a decision decided by a dice roll, and the loser simmering with resentment for the rest of the game (and beyond)? We are well rid of things like this if possible.

A dash of the unpredictable

So, all I have really done so far is explain a skill that is gone from the game. I do not deny it was a skill, although I have perhaps called into question the value of the skill and whether it was having a detrimental effect on the way the game was played.

On a basic level, if you assume both players were good judges of distance and the game was being played in a good spirit, the elimination of estimation removes nothing from the game. Both players were going to get their ranges right (which often happened). What does this mean? What it really means is that the charges from both sides are going to be entirely predictable. Both players know when a unit is in range, so from a movement perspective, they both know what is going to happen.

Dice are in Warhammer for a reason. It is widely known that dice and I dont get along; dice hate me, and I tend to return the sentiment. However, I do acknowledge their purpose. They are the random element in the game. Warhammer is not meant to be like chess. It lacks the refinement and careful balance of chess, but in their place it adds character and heroics. Unexpectedly courageous last stands, great displays of prowess and sudden disasters. The game contains unpredictable elements to keep the players guessing.

8th edition adds dice to the movement phase in a big way. With certain exceptions, movement was previously the most predictable phase in the game (I should point out that the movement phase was not immune to dice in the past. One of the things that could most destroy a players plan was a unit failing to flee far enough from a charge and getting caught). Now everyone rolls dice whenever they want to charge. Whether a charge is successful no longer depends on you out-judging your opponent, but upon whether you got close enough to compensate for potentially poor rolling. Charges have become an exercise in stacking the odds in your favour, which I will briefly cover now.

Stacking the odds in your favour
In White Dwarf in years gone by, Nigel Stillman used to regularly espouse the saying, “He who rolls the most dice wins”. In reality what this statement translates to is “he who best stacks the odds in his favour wins”. Sometimes this will be through sheer weight of dice, but more often the quality of the attributes behind those dice (eg needing 3+ to hit instead of 5+) will win through.

Stacking the odds in your favour is really the fundamental skill in Warhammer. There are underlying skills that help you achieve this goal, but it is the overarching principle. If you stack the odds well enough, even bad rolling on your part (or good rolling on the part of your opponent) will not prevent you from winning the combat, or the game.

The principle can be applied to every phase of the game, and the implementation can vary. For instance, if you really need to get that flank charge in, you can either move in close to ensure a bad roll will still get you there, or you can line up the charge with more than one unit, thereby building redundancy into your plan (so long as one of them makes it, you achieved your goal).  Another basic example is to give a unit bonuses or rerolls in combat by using a spell. This can change a potentially unfavourable combat into a flogging for the other side. By doing this instead of spending the dice on a cheap magic missile at another target, you have stacked the odds of the combat. Granted, your magic missile target is going unmolested, however it is often better to be sure of one thing than to make a half-hearted attempt at 2 things and fail them both.

There are countless examples I could give for how you stack the odds favourably, however I will instead cover some of the principles that fit under this umbrella in my next post. These principles often feed into each other, but I will do my best to cover as much as I can….


  1. Greg, if you keep writing such good posts I'm going to start making you famous like I did to that HE thread and send everyone here. :)

  2. I shall consider myself warned...

  3. a good old article still good, thx

    1. Cheers. I try to write most of these things in a way that makes their age irrelevant, but the format of blogs tends to make things feel like only the most recent posts are worth looking at.

      Of course, 9th edition is closer than I would like to admit now. That should change things a bit...