Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Warhammer: Where is the Skill (Part 5: Preparation)

We’re now up to the fifth segment in our discussion of the skill in Warhammer. This time I’ll focus on stuff that happens before the game, when neither player has even moved a model yet.

OK, maybe this should have been the first part of the series, rather than part 5. But these things kind of evolve as I write them. Apologies to those who are confused by my apparent lack of structure.

Army selection
Much as some people might not like it, a great deal of a player’s success tends to come from army selection. Warhammer army books are designed to give you a wide range of options to choose from when building your army. In some cases it is possible for the same race to construct lists that vary so wildly in appearance and playing style that you might be forgiven for thinking they came from different army books. 

This flexibility also means that in terms of competitiveness, not all armies are created equal. Some armies are the stuff of nightmares, designed to crush the hopes and dreams of opponents, club cut baby seals, and garner the loving attention of all the wrong sorts of admirers. Other armies are utterly toothless – rendered ineffective by weak selections, a lack of synergy and generally just the wrong tools for the job. More often though, an army will be somewhere in between, and often it will perform differently depending upon the opposition.

First up, let me get something straight. It is not possible for a single army to be completely dominant in all important aspects of the game. The armies in Warhammer might not be perfectly balanced, but some standards do exist. The points system used for army selection means that, unless you are playing a very large game, you will not be able to afford everything you want to cover every contingency. A list of the aspects to consider for a given army might look something like this:

Here we are talking about the speed of units (and the army as a whole) in terms of movement. If you are slower than you opponent, you will find yourself having to dislodge him from the defensible location or building, because he got there first. If your forces are too slow, you give your opponent more time to whittle down or annihilate units with shooting or magic before you make combat. Faster units can get into better positions, and can generally charge further – this gives you a better chance of combining charges to overwhelm your opposition. Finally, if your troops are faster than your enemy’s, you have the ability to dictate the terms to your opponent. You will be the one that picks the charge targets, and chooses when to engage. These are all important considerations.

Ranged firepower
This is pretty simple. We’re talking about bows, handguns, crossbows, war machines and the like. The ability to remove or cripple the elements of the enemy army that most threaten your own, without giving them a chance to swing back. Some armies excel at this; others have nothing at all.

Magic offence
An effective magical offence means a combination of the right range of spells, and the ability to ensure that you generate enough power dice to make them work. Magic offence does not necessarily mean killing enemy troops with direct damage spells. It could also mean casting the right augment and hex spells to enable your army to get the job done.

Magic defence
This means being able to negate your opponent’s magic offence, by whatever means. It may mean generating additional dispel dice, stealing your opponent’s power dice, carrying items that automatically stop or ignore spells, or even the ability to kill or cripple enemy wizards before they can do real damage. Against simple damage spells it might be enough to have units that can weather the damage with no soft targets available, however not all spells work this way; it’s best to be able to stop the spells ever being cast.

Hitting power
The ability to do damage in close combat is a fundamental requirement of nearly all Warhammer armies. You need to be able to comprehensively out-fight your enemies, so that they not only lose more models than you – you also need them to break or crumble as a result of the combat. If you can’t do these things, you will find it very hard to win games.

This topic really covers a range of issues. In general terms, it means having units your opponent can’t get rid of. In practical terms however, this means units that can absorb damage, will not break or crumble from combat, and will not panic at the first opportunity. It’s no good having units that can do apocalyptic damage if they don’t survive to see combat, or to swing when it gets to their Initiative.

It is extremely useful to have units you don’t mind losing. These are the Skaven Slaves, Goblin Wolf Riders and Great Eagles of the world. It is often necessary to sacrifice (or at the very least, endanger) a unit in order to position your enemy where you want him. This may be through diverting a charge or by holding up a unit for as long as possible. Either way, you don’t want to be doing this with your best fighters.

Things go wrong in a game of Warhammer (hello, fellow Greenskin players! This one’s for you…). Whether it’s due to a failed psychology test, an unexpected spell or a miserable charge roll, a plan can unravel when a single unit fails in its duty (don’t worry, you can punish it later). Having a redundancy plan (eg a second unit waiting to succeed where the first failed you so miserably) is a great way to ensure your game stays on track.

Other words may come to mind like “versatility” and “flexibility”, however if it is possible for an army to cover all of the items above at once, you probably have all the versatility/flexibility you could need. The point is, it is not possible for a single, standard-sized army (2000-2500pts) to cover all the bases. Some well-built armies might come close, but there is no perfect solution. As such, selecting your army is an exercise in compromise.

There are two ways to go about making compromises in building an army. You can try to cover all the bases, but this will mean you are “Jack of all trades, master of none”. If you are fortunate, you might be able to muster moderate amounts of magic, shooting and combat, with some quick, disposable units. With these tools, you should be able to take a crack at anything, and could end up having a very interesting game against another army that has taken a similar approach.

Little shooting, no infantry: my unbalanced BoG list
The other way to compromise is to focus on some considerations to the exclusion of others. This is an approach you see often; sometimes it is forced upon you by your army book. Chaos and Vampire Counts armies are pretty lousy at shooting, with the exception of perhaps 1 unit per army. Dwarfs are never going to be fast, nor can they field magic. Many players also prefer to focus on certain aspects of the game, or like the way a particular, potentially unbalanced build of the army plays (or even just looks on the table). Unbalanced armies are often some of the most “themed” or characterful forces going around.

The decision by many players to ignore certain aspects of the game in order to bolster the army’s performance elsewhere can lead to the “rock/paper/scissors” face-offs you may have heard about or experienced. Not covering a particular area means an army will have a pronounced weakness, even as it has an obvious strength somewhere else. When both players have taken this same approach and a mismatch occurs, you can get some very one-sided games. This is the risk you run, and it’s part of the game.

In a tournament environment, army selection can become a balancing act between giving yourself the tools you need to win, and avoid the wrath of the composition scorecard. There is no point giving yourself a rock-hard army if it gets so badly destroyed on comp scores that you can’t make up the lost points by winning games. Where you draw the line will depend upon the scoring in the particular tournament, but in a well-balanced tournament, taking the hardest list in the field should give you a considerable handicap.

Similarly, there is not much point having the softest, cuddliest army in the tournament if you then can’t compete in any of your games. Don’t get me wrong; I am as much in favour of challenging yourself with a funny, seemingly impotent army as the next guy. However, to a certain extent you have a duty to your opponents to have the means to make a game of it. Some people might enjoy utterly destroying a joke of an army in a couple of turns, but I would suggest that most players are there to actually play a game. I’ve talked about this before, in an article on Comp.

You can’t really win a game through good deployment, but you can definitely lose a game through doing it badly. Learning the best places to deploy your units comes with practice, and the decisions will often be dictated by terrain and the composition of your army as a whole. Here are a few things to consider:

Reactive or Irrespective
The armies line up for the Battle of Champignon
This is a fundamental decision you need to make when you are approaching deployment. Do you deploy by reacting to your opponent’s deployments, or do you adhere to a plan you have in mind, and largely ignore the things he puts down? Sometimes a certain pattern of deployment is simply the best way to set up your army, irrespective of where your opponent gathers his forces. If you have a certain method of deployment in mind, you might be better off just looking at the terrain, deciding where your opponent is likely to place things, and start your standard deployment from there. However, some armies have little need for such a structured setup, and can better respond to the placement of individual enemy units.

Face off with the right enemy
Often you will look at an enemy unit (whether it is already deployed, or yet to go down), and know what you want to engage it with. Your opponent may see this coming and try to avoid it, but where possible, you want to try to facilitate the right match-ups by placing your unit within striking range of your target. If you place a unit right in front of the thing you least want to be fighting, you will only have yourself to blame when the inevitable happens. These sorts of obvious pairings often dictate the order of deployment by both players, and is generally the reason why some players like to have a lot of “throwaway” deployments – then they can put these down carelessly, whilst waiting for you to commit your important units.

Balanced or stacked
Xena disapproves of your deployment
It is a common mistake by players to spread their forces too thin, and allow them to get picked off. Some armies may permit a very widely spaced deployment, but a lot of armies suffer for it. Generally speaking, you need to decide where you want your strength to lie, and deploy around that plan. Sometimes you may find you want to stack a flank, or refuse one, in order to concentrate forces and try to stymie your opponent’s plan. This approach may be an admission that in a straight fight, your forces will be outmatched. Or you might just be trying to draw your opponent into having to think differently. Not all setups have to be centred around the middle of your deployment zone. 

Leave yourself room
It is easy to make a mistake during deployment and leave yourself too little room to place a unit. This is particularly easy to do now that you have to leave 1” between your units. Messing about and trying to fake out your opponent by leaving several gaps for that critical unit can be effective, but if you get it wrong and can’t put it where you want it, you will be spending the start of the game trying to compensate. Bear in mind that a character yet to be placed in a unit will displace a regular trooper, making the unit wider or deeper. Make sure you leave room for this too.
Another point on this topic – don’t box yourself in. If you are starting to deploy units behind others, make sure you’re not going to regret it later. This might be because your “screen” of cheap troops squabbles or bickers, your dopy Trolls go stupid, or because you want to charge in the first turn with the unit behind, but not the unit in front. Think about your opening moves when you’re placing your units, so you don’t mess yourself up.

Look at the terrain
It is a mistake to think that terrain no longer matters in Warhammer 8th edition. It is true that a forest will not cripple the speed of a unit moving through it anymore, but the Mysterious Terrain rules may leave you wishing you had moved around it. It is also often not safe for a unit to end its move in a forest, given the loss of their Steadfast due to the terrain. If you don’t want to take the chance, don’t deploy your unit in front of the forest. Hills may no longer provide the same commanding views as they used to, nor do they grant missile troops the ability to shoot in an extra rank. However, they still provide a vantage point over a lot of troops, and this can make a big difference when you’re lining up your shooting targets.

Consider your synergies
It is common to want certain elements of your army to be close to one another. This might be something simple like keeping the general and BSB within range of a particularly unreliable unit. It could equally be keeping units within range of your wizard’s spells, or keeping 2 units that like to charge together in the same place. You need to bear these things in mind when deploying, or you might find your plans messed up from Turn 1 – especially if that valuable unit panics off the table because you didn’t offer it the morale boost it needed. 

Remember your special rules
An army that is loaded with special deployment or movement rules can make setting up slightly more complicated. For instance, if you have Empire detachments, you need to remember to leave room for both the parent unit and the detachment in your formation. If you have units with the Vanguard or Ghoul Kin rule, you don’t want them trapped behind a unit without that option. Units with compulsory movement will have to move before the units you placed in front of them, unless you decide to charge them out of the way. These things all need to be considered.

Deploying things in the wrong place can be exacerbated by using a slow army. Dwarfs find it almost impossible to correct a deployment mistake, whereas units like Fast Cavalry can flit about almost at will. Sometimes you will be able to move things about and compensate for your error, but there will be times when you just have to live with your mistakes and get on with making the best of a bad situation.

Sometimes your hands will be a little bit tied for deployment, when special rules apply for a given scenario. The worst example of this is Dawn Attack, where you have to roll to deploy each unit in a specific segment of the deployment zone. Here the only consolation may be that your opponent has to do the same. Scenarios like this test your versatility and that of your army, so all you can do is realise it’s coming and make the best of it.

Da Plan
And finally for this segment, we are going to talk about the game plan. Whether you realise it or not, you probably play to some sort of game plan with your army. To a large extent, this plan is dictated by your army construction (or vice versa). Playing your various units to their strengths will mean they are used in a certain way, and this combined with any synergies you might have built into the list will drive the use of the army as a whole.

Most plans used in games of Warhammer are not really very elaborate. They might involve delaying moves, targeting certain dangerous or weak elements, or casting certain spells before engaging at the right time. Alternately, the plan may be to rush at the enemy as quickly as possible, and woe betide your army if the enemies happen to be better fighters than your own (a plan beloved by Savage Orcs everywhere).

Having an intricate plan for the game is really over-planning when your opponent will more than likely interfere with your cunning schemes. All the sayings about plans not surviving contact with the enemy are pretty apt. An effective plan for a game of Warhammer will rarely go beyond playing your army the way you intended when you built the list, and dealing with your opponent’s units on their own merits. Grand plans of sweeping around your enemies’ flanks and wiping them off the table sound great, but your opponent will generally react and prevent this. 

In general terms, I would say the following stages will dictate your plan:

General army
When you first construct your list, you will probably have an idea of how you want it to play. Even in a balanced combined-arms list, you will be expecting certain elements to perform specific roles. Whether or not you have formalised this approach in your head, it is essentially your basic plan. Regardless of who you fight and the terrain you are on, most of these roles will not change.

Opponent’s list
When you see your opponent’s list (or his models, if you’re playing with closed lists), you will probably start to designate specific targets for your units. Things like, “The Cannon will shoot the Screaming Bell and the Mortar will shoot the Stormvermin” are basic examples. In addition, you will probably get a feel for where your opponent’s strengths lie, and where you are likely to be challenged or overmatched. This will potentially alter how aggressive you are planning to be, and it may affect your deployment.

If you are deploying irrespective of your opponent’s movements, your plan will probably not change at this point. However, if you are reacting to his deployments with your own, placing your units will either be the first stage in enacting your existing plans, or it will be a change based on unexpected deployments by your opponent (whether they are causing you problems or presenting you with opportunities) or potentially the terrain.

Adapt and survive
Once the game is underway, not everything will go as planned. The dice will do something unexpected, or your opponent’s actions will be other than what you anticipated (if you even went so far as to try to double guess him). Hopefully your general game plan can remain the same, however if things start to go wrong, you may find yourself reassessing the value of certain units and buying time for others. If things start to fall apart and you fail to adapt accordingly, you will reap what you sow.

And thus we come to the end of part 5 of this series of articles. There will probably be just one more of these, assuming I don’t get distracted and head off on a tangent again…

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with some of the above. Deployment can win you the game on those merits alone, i have successfully done this more than once.
    Building an army then creating a strategy on how to best use that army is how 99% of the player base build and use their armies.
    I on the other hand create a strategy first, then i proceed to build an army that will best make its full potential felt most within that strategy...for the most part, to great effect!

    Building my younger days, i always built characters to fill a specific role, strong combat or strong magic or strong something else to the detriment of every other aspect. For the most part they did exactly what they were purchased for and they did it well. However, when 7th edition made its appearance and then 8th, i went back to the drawing board and completely revamped my way of thinking. I prefer my characters now to fill a multifaceted role or an ever changing role. Whereby different factors will change their deployment, spells they take, tactics i will employ, etc etc. I find they tend to be a more stable smarter approach, some would consider this conservative, i just see this as intelligent design. Considering how vital/costly these models can be especially in terms of points or how many points they can potentially give up to your opponent if they are lost.