Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Warhammer: Where is the Skill (Part 4: Mentality)

And now we continue with my series on the skill in Warhammer. Hopefully by this point I have started to make some people think about how much really does go into a game of Warhammer, regardless of how seriously you might be taking it.

Today we are going to look at a player’s mentality. Some of these are topics I have never really heard discussed before.

Aggression and a sound defence

I am an aggressive Warhammer player. I tend to field armies that like to get to grips with the enemy, and very rarely will I hold back and make my opponent’s army come to me. Part of this is that I am rather impatient in my games, and like things to start happening. I also seem to lack faith in the ability of whatever shooting I field to seriously damage or cripple the enemy, and prefer to address the problem directly in combat. I think this partially stems from backlash in gaming circles against the “gun line” approach, which is really how far you need to take things if you want your missile troops to do the bulk of the work for you.

My aggression in the game is not isolated to a preference for engaging the enemy in close combat. I am known to take a high-risk, high-reward approach to my play. This might involve me throwing a pile of dice at a spell, in an attempt to force it past my opponent’s defences, despite whatever risk I might be taking in terms of a miscast. Alternately, it might mean a character lunging madly out of a unit, eschewing the protection of his comrades for the opportunity to assassinate an enemy character, or get into a proper position to cast a devastating spell, or whatever else. A great example of this can be found in the seemingly mad behaviour of my Empire General on his Griffon in the Battle of the Eerie Hills report.

To an extent, I had dismissed my behaviour as a symptom of my impatience. By making no effort to bide my time and potentially over-extending myself, the game comes to a head far more quickly than if both players are being cagey and spend the first few turns trying to set something up. Win or lose, my aggressive play will mean that the game speeds up, and “a fast game’s a good game.”

However, it was suggested to me recently that my aggressive play might stem from my earlier years of playing Warhammer. I started off playing early in 4th edition, and my armies of choice were High Elves and Wood Elves. The High Elf book was a truly woeful thing, in terms of competitiveness. They had almost no special rules, they were poorly equipped, and they were expensive. The Wood Elves didn’t even have a book for years, and were getting by on something similar to the Chaos Dwarf list still floating around from Ravening Hordes at the start of 6th edition. On e of my most frequent opponents used Dwarfs, and these match-ups were pretty well-balanced. However, my other regular games were against Undead and Chaos. These armies were far more powerful than my poor Elves, and I found myself fighting a constant up-hill battle.
You can do iiit!!

When you are fighting a superior army, it is generally necessary to take risks. Assuming you can’t simply out-play your opponent, you are left relying upon luck. You can do nothing out of the ordinary and hope that in a standing fight, you roll well enough to deal with superior opposition. This can happen, however you are trying to consistently out-roll your opponent en-masse. It’s unlikely, and should you achieve it, your opponent will probably be justifiably peeved.

Alternately, you can take risks, play aggressively, and try to setup situations where you either need to simply roll adequately to achieve your goals, or roll well, but with a far more rewarding goal in mind. In both cases, failure will doubtless be worse than if you had played conservatively (you have probably exposed yourself in some way, whether it be the likely loss of a single model, or the collapse of an entire flank or the game as a whole). You have taken the risk because the chance of success is greater than sitting back and doing nothing.
There are other reasons to play this way. Aggressive and risky play tends to force your opponent to reveal their hand, and to react swiftly to your bizarre actions instead of taking their time and hatching their original master plan for the game. It can throw them off-balance. I once managed to launch a Treeman more than 24” across the table in the first turn, engaging the best enemy unit in their deployment zone. My opponent later admitted that it took him 3 turns before he started thinking clearly again, after this debacle of an opening.

Having spent my early years of Warhammer having to scrap like mad in order to have a chance of winning games, I seem to have retained some of my aggressive tendencies. This means I can still potentially bring down superior opposition, however it can also mean I sometimes throw away an advantage unnecessarily. There is no longer a guarantee that my army will be weaker than my opponent’s. When I have the high ground, playing aggressively can be wasteful and sometimes fatal.

When your regiment faces off with an enemy, and you clearly have the advantage, what do you do? Do you behave like an underdog, and try to do something extraordinary in order to shift the balance and win you an unlikely victory? No. You let matters take their course, and sooner or later the units will meet and (barring a shocking outcome in terms of dice), you will emerge victorious. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all.

When you are in the position of strength, sometimes your main gamble will come down to whether you want to tempt your opponent into doing something rash to try to turn the tables. If you can see the things he might try to do, you must decide whether these are things you can afford to risk (and when they fail, you can capitalise), or whether these potential plans are something to avoid, and to close the door on any opportunity.

This decision will probably come down to how likely your opponent’s plan is to succeed. Sometimes opponents will see opportunities where there really are none (normally due to their failure to grasp the odds, or forgetting a vital rule). At other times, your opponent might be looking at a 1-in-6 chance of beheading your general – a risk most players will never choose take when in a position of strength. The other factor to bear in mind is how comprehensive you need your victory to be. This will most likely only come up in a tournament, but if you’re in a strong position, but not likely to be able to fully push home your advantage before the game ends, it might be time to take the odd risk.

Knowing when to press and when to hold back
Over the years, my aggression has resulted in some swift and comprehensive victories. It has also resulted in disasters, where my plans didn’t come off at all, and everything fell in a screaming heap (ah, good times). I had a tournament with Orcs and Goblins once, where I played 7 games, for 7 massacres of 20-0. 5 of them were in my favour, the other 2 not so much (draws are for wimps!). However, there is another scenario that has happened to me all too often. I have started off the game well, achieving critical successes, and looking like steamrolling my opponent. I have then tried to finish the job, and the wheels have come off in a very big way.

No mercy!
Going in for the kill can be an important part of a game of Warhammer. Gaining an advantage during the game will do you little good if that does not then translate into points. However, there can be a point where it is better to stop pressing, and to accept the points you have already gained. It is easy to think of your opponent’s army as beaten, and to overextend yourself in the quest to wipe them out and garner maximum points from the game. However, what will happen if you miscast and destroy your lord-level mage, trying to push things forward faster? What if a unit bombs in combat? Will you suddenly have exposed the flank of another unit and start a chain reaction? Sometimes it’s a risk versus reward thing.

The danger of over-extending is exacerbated by using an unreliable army, such as Orcs and Goblins. All it takes is for an important Animosity test or Fear test to be failed, and your plans can start to unravel. However, it’s something that all players need to bear in mind. Finishing off your opponent is important, but it’s worth considering what will happen if something goes wrong. It is very depressing to wind up losing a game you should have won, just because you got greedy and pressed too hard.

List imbalance is a part of Warhammer. In order to provide players with the ability to field a wide variety of armies, the games designers have effectively left the door open for very uneven forces to be put on the table. This is a large part of why GW have always said that Warhammer was not intended as rules for a competitive tournament. It is generally accepted that not all lists are created equal. As such, players need to be able to adapt according to the match-up they are presented with. If you find that your army has the advantage, this imbalance will probably not give you many issues. If your list is the weaker of the two however, you have a decision to make: do you attack, or do you defend?

We have all heard it said, “The best defence is a good offence”. Unfortunately, if you find yourself fighting a far stronger army (or one that happens to trump your own in critical areas, creating a mismatch), sometimes taking the fight to your opponent is not a viable option. There are games where your single advantage is that a game will generally only last for 6 turns. If your opponent can’t get to grips with you and squeeze points out of your army within that timeframe, he will miss his chance.
Turn 6, here we come!

I confess that playing for a draw is not something I have ever been very good at. This is probably partly due to my ingrained underdog mentality, and the fact that, in the early when I was playing with friends, we didn’t play with a turn limit. We played until one army was ground into the dirt (we realised later that this just exacerbated the problem of unbalanced armies, but at the time it was just how we did things). When there is no turn limit, there are no draws (well, there was one draw where the last 2 models wiped each other out, but other than that…). Since playing for a draw was never an option, I was left with no choice but to attack. This habit has stayed with me, even when I should know better.

When you look at an opponent’s army and realise there is little or no hope for you to win the game, your best course of action is to play for a draw. This generally involves deploying very deeply and very defensively, potentially even “turtling” in a corner (I personally hate this, but sometimes it’s sensible). You want your enemy to take as long as possible to close the gap between the armies. You also generally want to keep your forces together, ideally presenting the enemy with an unbroken wall of steadfast units with good leadership and rerolls from a BSB. If you separate your forces, there is the danger they will be picked off. Too much of this, and your opponent may not even need to assault your main “castle” of troops – they have the points they need from your army, and don’t need to risk anything more.
The Romans knew about "turtling

And this risk is the irony of playing for a draw. If you pull up your defensive lines well enough, an opponent may not be able to break through without doing something risky. You then end up presenting him with a decision – does he accept the draw and leave you unmolested, or does he throw the dice and attempt to break through? If the armies are really that unbalanced, your opponent is unlikely to want to settle for a draw. He will bite the bullet and try to break through your defences. If things then go wrong for him, you might find yourself presented with an unexpected chance at victory. I admit that it feels a bit harsh on your opponent when his attempts to “make a game of it” result in him losing out, but then if his army is really something nasty, even my sympathy for him will be limited.

Never say die
There have been many games where I have seen players throw in the towel after things start to go their opponents’ way. Something they perceive as critical to their success fails and for them, the game is over. To say that this defeatist attitude plays into your opponent’s hands is an understatement. A player who has given up and just wants the game to end will start making mistakes, sometimes intentionally. This often takes the form of ridiculous gambles or impossible charges, just to speed things up. I admit that sometimes a ludicrous gamble might be the only way to bring a game back within reach, but if you’re doing this just because you have given up, the game really is over.

If you have given up the game and start feeding your opponent points, you are doing 2 things wrong. The first is that if you are in a competitive environment, you are potentially screwing up a tournament for other players. You are giving your opponent free bonuses that may propel him further up the tables than he deserved. It is extremely frustrating for a player to be working hard for a win, then to look across at another table and see his rival sweeping aside an opponent who has long since given up. To an extent, it is your responsibility to make your opponent earn every kill. You have to assume that everyone else is doing the same thing, and failure to do so on your part is messing up the level playing field.
If you surrender, Leonidis will hunt you down and destroy you. He knows where you live...
The second thing you’re doing wrong is writing off any chance of a comeback. As discussed earlier, a game can fall apart just as you’re trying to finish your opponent and get all the points you can. There is a big difference between removing an enemy’s biggest threats, and “tabling” (wiping out) your opponent. There are often real risks involved in trying to close out a game, especially if time is running out. However, if you simply keel over and feed your opponent your units, you are removing this danger from the game. If something goes wrong for him, he’s not going to be punished for it if you have capitulated. You need to keep playing, make him earn the points, and maybe capitalise when he over-reaches, or something unexpected happens to foil his plans.

Do everyone a favour and play until the game is over.

Hiding your intent from your opponent.
OK, now we get to something that people rarely discuss. Hiding your intent from your opponent can be difficult, especially if he is familiar with you and/or your army. If you’re setting something up for a flank charge, it’s generally difficult to hide this. You might be able to angle the unit so that it looks like your primary objective is something else, but if the flank charge is really worth doing, your opponent will probably see through your cunning ruse.

In some ways, the new era of pre-measuring everything makes it even harder to hide your sneaky plans. If you have a great spell lined up and want to check to ensure it’s in range, you might as well be broadcasting to your opponent that you’re planning something. Sometimes it might be better not to pre-measure, and to suffer the consequences if you got the range wrong. You could even do something ludicrous like measuring to a different, far worse target in the hope of your opponent wasting his dispel dice on earlier spells because he doesn’t care about what he thinks you are planning.

Can't be too careful when the rats have Weeping Blades
Hiding your intent is different from not explaining your army properly to your opponent. “Neglecting” to mention that a unit has flaming attacks or Killing Blow is not being cunning – it’s cheating. I agree that you don’t want to make a big song and dance about a particular rule if that is the one you are planning to use to beat your opponent, but there is a difference between making sure your opponent knows it’s there, and jumping up and down and shouting about all the bad things you’re going to do to them with this rule. If your opponent then forgets about the rule, the item, or whatever, it is no longer your fault. He could ask you if he’s unsure, but otherwise his failure is on his own head.

Well, we’re getting there folks. There will probably be 2 more posts on this topic, and then I’ll be moving onto other things.


  1. Another thing that can have drastic effects on a tournament game.
    Psychological State of your opponent - The earliest memories of Tournaments for me were the stories people would tell of their all night painting frenzies to get their armies done, or completed to a higher level and doing so until the wee hours of Tournament day. Players adding the last few details and touches to their army, custom tokens, or spell cards, or intricate back stories for their armies...just to squeeze out those few extra soft score points. Added to this, a great many players do this also while consuming alcohol or smoking something other than the usual store bought kind.
    This can have serious detrimental effects on players and you can always tell. People who are tired, exhausted, run down or hungover have a tendency to yawn extensively, notorious red eye syndrome, drink copious amounts of redbull/coffee or exclaim as to how they only got 2 hours sleep. For the wise and rested general, like myself, for the better part of decade i have exploited this as much as humanly possible.
    Bottom line, "Tired people make mistakes", why do you think they always advertise to not drive when you are tired, because you could kill yourself or someone else. Obviously in Warhammer its not so drastic, but the effect can still be lasting. A tired player will and usually make poor decisions, have a tendency to be rash, be impatient, forget things, ignore whole units movement phases or shooting or combat. While this may seem unsportsmanlike, is this your problem? My answer is no. It is your opponents problem, plain and simple. The underlying premise for Tournaments is to bring your "A" game, they don't award Trophies to people who come last (other than the wooden spoon). You can still be civil, friendly and jovial...but you can do this while tabling your opponent. 99% of tired opponents will accept the fact that playing game after game on less than a handful of hours sleep is no ones fault but their own, the remaining 1% can be quite frustrating. The last thing you want is to play someone who is exhausted, you then proceed to knock the stuffing out of them and then for him/her to dock you sportsmanship points, not vote for your army (players choice award), etc etc. Be humble and be civil is my best advice, play be the rules as strictly as possible and leave no room in there for your tired, agitated, irritated opponent to use as fuel for his spiteful retalliation.

  2. Psychological State of your opponent - can also be extended to the perception potential opponents have of you..."Reputation" or "Image". In most areas that run tournaments, use a ladder system to measure/record achievements of players in the area. Players that regularly manage to sit in the top few spots are regarded quite differently from the remaining field. The top spots are usually reserved for those who are amazing painters who field brilliant armies, people who you just cant hate because they are just so damn nice...but mostly it is due unwavering battlefield prowess, skillfull generalship and tactical mastery, top spots are held by players who field solid armies backed by players who know their stuff, your stuff and everyone elses stuff. "Image" can be a very powerful weapon to wield, in fact it can be so powerful that it can drastically affect the way your opponent plays you. "Reputation", also throws its hat into the ring, whereby someone who has a particular reputation for particular styles of play or army choices or being nigh unbeatable can alter the way they are perceived and played against. In my younger days, whilst playing the other version of Warhammer (the futuristic kind) i played a particular way, with a particular army and i conducted myself in a particular manner. I was ultra competitive, played an unrelenting min/max army (this is before min/max was even something that was being kicked around the forums...hell this is before most forums i am on now even existed) and the strategy i used was utterly devastating to nearly everyone. While i was friendly and conversive with my opponents and for the most part i was humble, people did not enjoy playing my army. I usually walked away with Best General, for years i did this, but rarely did i win. When people versed my army, the majority already knew they would lose so their tactics usually went out the window in favour of all or nothing approaches. I found even conservative and tight players became wrecking balls trying to break my army or they became even more conservative to the point of spending the entire game attempting to hide.
    Recently i moved cities, for me this was a blessing in disguise as it was time for a clean slate. The players here had no clue as to who i was, my skill level, my tactics, my armies. The first 6 months here, i played conservative or i played loose, i intentionally forgot rules to the benefit of my opponents etc etc. I wanted people to have a perception of me as being a competent player and painter...but nothing more. At the first real tournament, State Nationals (top tournament in the state) i brought my "A" game, to everyones amazement. I brought an army that no one had seen before, no one had expected it, the tactics i employed were unconventional, the spell list i had chosen was unforeseen. I had a restful nights sleep and i was prepared. Over the course of two days, i went 6-0 for wins. Completely tabling 4 of my opponents, yes thats right, top players previous tournament/state champions losing every model by Turn3, 4, 5 or 6. I walked away with Top General and Overall winner.
    I employed every available tool i had at my disposal, i knew what my opponents were bringing before the tournament began, i knew their strategy as i had played them with my weaker armies in the past, i knew every angle of my army and the weaknesses of theirs, i took advantage of their state of mind (because people were tired), allowing them to forget about moving units, shooting or magic items and over the course of the first day as i went from one game to the next racking up 20-0 wins future opponents were playing very differently than what they had planned for. I had created an impenetrable "image" at the tournament of "if you verse me, you will lose". To my benefit this effect worked wonders as opponents played carelessly or foolishly and allowed me to roll over them.