Thursday, 8 September 2011

Warhammer: Where is the Skill (Part 6: Wrapping it up)

There are a number of topics I thought I should cover in this series, but which I am yet to get to. This is partly because I started grouping the items together, and these are the things that got left behind. I figured that rather than leaving these things out, I would lump them all together at the end in order to wrap things up.

I have mentioned on the new navigation page for this series of articles that I may revisit this subject, in order to address specific topics in more detail rather than covering the entirety of the game with a broad brush (as I have done thus far).

Magical management
It is well documented that 8th edition has seen the introduction (or in many cases, the reintroduction) of some extremely dangerous spells. Spells like Purple Sun of Xereus offer the potential to cripple units that are vulnerable due to certain low characteristics. There are spells that pose a significant threat to characters, sometimes in addition to knocking a sizeable chunk out of their bodyguard unit (The Dwellers Below being the most obvious example). The addition of these “game over” spells has arguably made the management of magic more important than ever before.

I should point out at this point that it has always been possible for a well-timed spell to decide a game. In recent times, the game-winning spells went about their business more subtly than the current range of “super spells”. Dwellers is a blunt instrument that will often remove half a unit, hopefully throwing a key character or two into the bargain. Anyone who has read the spell can see the danger (although this obviously doesn’t guarantee protection against it). In the past, the main offenders were more commonly a Vanhel’s Danse Macabre or an Incantation of Urgency, which enabled an otherwise impossible flank charge and thus decided the game. The spell might not be as dramatic, but the outcome was probably more certain. Spells like Infernal Gateway and Curse of the Horned Rat were also present in 7th edition, but given these are race-specific spells, they are admittedly not as prevalent as those that come from the common Lores of Magic.

Regardless of whether you believe that magic is more powerful than it was previously, the truth of the matter is that management of the magic phase has always been a critical element of the game. This is true whether you have a powerful wizard with earth-shattering spells, or an army with no magical ability whatsoever. How you handle your opponent’s magic is just as important as what you do with your own.

The Magic Phase is unique in the game of Warhammer, in that it is the one time when you have the option of directly interfering with the actions of your opponent. When he aims a cannon at you, all you can do is hope it doesn’t hurt. However, when he lines you up with a fireball, you can take the same approach, or you can attempt to stop the spell from happening. This is part of what makes magic the most fickle of mistresses in the game, and why basing an army around a plan involving magic can be fraught with risk.

There is something of an art form to properly controlling the magic phase, and there are considerations to make for both the attacker and the defender.

For the attacking player, the Magic Phase is a balancing act of trying to drain an opponent’s dispel pool, sliding relatively innocuous spells through unopposed, and using brute force to get the really powerful stuff through his defences. The attacker needs to prioritise his spells and decide on the best way to get each one through before rolling the dice.

In the previous edition of Warhammer, a player could largely plan out his magic phase in advance. You knew exactly how many power dice you would have at your disposal, and how many dispel dice your opponent would be holding. This meant that, all things being equal, you might potentially approach every magic phase of the game in the exact same way.

8th edition Warhammer is different. You don’t know how many power dice you will have until you have rolled the 2D6 for the Winds of Magic. The potential for results anywhere between 2 and 12 will mean any two Magic Phases can pan out very differently. In the same way, you don’t know exactly how many dispel dice your opponent is going to be holding. In essence, unless you have a bundle of items guaranteed to add power dice to your pool, you don’t know how dominant a position you will be in until the dice have been rolled.
The brute force approach to getting a spell through is the most basic. It may be a sign of laziness on the part of the player, desperation in the face of overwhelming magic defence (a pile of dispel dice or something automatic like a Dispel Scroll), or just a sign of the importance of the spell in question. In general terms, the brute force approach involves picking up 6 power dice (the maximum normally permitted) and hoping for a massive roll or an Irresistible Force roll of double 6. Irresistible Force will mean no magical defence can stop the spell, however it may spell the end of your Magic Phase (or the end of your wizard!) as a result of the subsequent Miscast. Without double 6s, a massive roll will still be able to be blocked by a Dispel Scroll, but if there is none then your opponent will have to match your roll or pull double 6s of his own. Sitting on a pile of 7 or 8 dispel dice might make you feel moderately comfortable, but if you’re trying to match a roll of 25+, your success is certainly not guaranteed.

Use brute force, Luke!
It is often possible to slide a spell through unopposed in a phase when you have a lot of power dice. If the spell is nothing too nasty, your opponent will be more focused on the lurking menace of the big spell you’re waiting to cast, and may well hoard his dispel dice to try to prevent it. Depending upon how many small spells you have on hand, and how many more dice than your opponent you have, it may be possible to get more than one cheap trick through without him raising a dispel die in anger. The approach will only work so long as you have kept back enough dice to threaten to cast the dangerous spell still in your hand. If the threat of that spell is gone, your opponent will be free to spend his dice on less scary stuff.

Putting the squeeze on your opponent’s dispel pool can be one of the most satisfying parts of the game. This scenario will generally play out when there is no single devastating spell waiting to be cast with a pile of dice, or you are unwilling to risk a potential miscast by trying to force the spell through. Instead, you need to drain your opponent’s dispel dice to the point where his eventual resistance to the spell you really want is insufficient. It is also likely to occur when you have more than one useful spell you want to cast – things your opponent can’t afford to allow through. The phase then becomes a dance of you selecting a spell your opponent needs to prevent, allocating the minimum number of dice to ensure it goes off, and making him decide whether to grit his teeth and allow it through, spend his valuable dispel dice stopping it, or taking a risk and allocating barely enough dice to give him a reasonable chance of dispelling. This last scenario is best of all, as it means the dispel pool is depleted, and a poor roll on his part may mean the spell goes through anyway…

How you approach your Magic Phase will depend upon the power dice available to you, your opponent’s magic defence, the balance of spells you have on offer and the situation of the game. Other factors will be the threat of items like the Infernal Puppet (which makes enemy Miscasts more dangerous and your own less so), and whether you can afford to roll 1 or 2 dice at a spell when a roll of 1 or 2 will end the Magic Phase for the wizard in question.

Defending in the Magic Phase is all about priorities. You need to fully understand all the spells and powers your opponent has to throw at you, and then assess which ones you can let through, and which must be stopped at any cost. Once you have a firm handle on these things, you’re ready to face the music and hope your opponent doesn’t roll too many sixes…

Before any modifiers for skills, items and Channelling, the defender can find himself anywhere between 1 and 6 dice behind the attacker. This means you may be almost on a par with your opponent (and therefore able to consider dispelling everything he casts), or in a very defensive position (and having to let a lot of stuff through to conserve dispel dice). This equation will also vary depending upon what level wizards you both have – if one of you is adding 4 to each roll whilst the other adds 1 or 2, it can make a big difference.

Generally speaking, your opponent is likely to have a mix of low-level, less than devastating spells, along with one or two potentially apocalyptic ones. In-between spells may cause you something of a headache – the sorts of spells that may put one of your units in extreme danger, but which won’t necessarily swing the game as a whole. These are the spells that you may be able to stop in a phase where you have a similar pile of dice to your opponent, but just have to allow through when you’re at a significant disadvantage. Being able to prioritise the spells, and to shift your assessment depending upon the situation of the game (where an otherwise meaningless spell may suddenly become important) is the key to mastering the defensive side of the Magic Phase.

Sometimes letting spells through in anticipation of “the big one” which is still coming can result in you ending the phase with a pile of dispel dice still in your hand. This will most commonly occur when your opponent casts the big spell with Irresistible Force, or fails to make the casting roll. It might be tempting to look back wistfully at the other spells you let through and could have stopped, but that sort of thinking is unproductive. By making your opponent roll 6 dice at a spell, you are forcing him to take a chance. Irresistible Force will leave you defenceless against the spell in question, but it can also be fatal to the caster. Often the latter will have a greater impact than the former, and it’s impossible to reliably plan around Irresistible Force.

Make them dance to your tune
A large part of controlling a game of Warhammer takes place in the Movement Phase. This is true in terms of controlling your own units, however it can also involve the manipulation of enemy movement. If you can control your opponent’s movement, you really do have control of the game.

March blocking

As far as manipulation of enemy movement goes, march blocking units by placing enemies within 8” is an old tactic. It used to be more effective than it is now (previously your victim would not get to test to march – they would automatically be slowed). This is not to say it’s not worth thinking about – particularly when dealing with isolated units on the flanks that are not going to benefit from the general’s Inspiring Presence or the rerolls of the Battle Standard. These flanking units will generally be relying on their speed to perform a role, so if they happen to fail their test to march, their effectiveness will be impaired.

March blocking has ceased to be a key consideration in mist plans. Instead it is something you should make a point of remembering. You will often have units within 8” of the enemy for other reasons, but if you remember to make the enemy test, you will sometimes be rewarded.

Charge blocking

This topic would most likely have been called “diverting” in the previous edition, however it has become more difficult to divert an enemy and force him out of position than it used to be. That is not to say it is impossible, however it is less rampant than it once was. Instead, I have decided to include it under a broader topic of “charge blocking” – generally interfering with enemy charges.

Charge blocking generally involves planting a (most likely expendable) unit immediately in front of an enemy. The enemy must either sit still (or shuffle sideways a bit), or it must charge the nuisance capering in its face. This will generally be instead of charging something far more valuable or (if the player is simply stalling for time before the enemy closes) to prevent them marching at a decent rate. The blocking unit will generally be at an angle, in order to twist the enemy out of formation, or force them to wheel the wrong direction whilst pursuing.
In your face! Charge this...
The unit being charged has the choice of fleeing or holding the charge. Assuming you roll well enough, fleeing will preserve the unit and result in a failed charge for the enemy – they have travelled a maximum of 6”, they are out of position, and they are probably facing the wrong way. If you don’t flee far enough, the enemy will travel the full distance you fled and have a free reform at the end. This means the unit may be slightly out of position, but he has potentially not been slowed, nor have you controlled his facing. This may have bought you the time you needed anyway, but it’s most likely a failed ploy.

The other problem with fleeing the charge is that the enemy may decide not to continue the charge, and test to redirect onto a new target. This means if your goal is to save a more important unit from being charged, fleeing will not achieve your goal (unless you have two blocking units, as they can only test to redirect once)…

Assuming you only have a single blocking unit and your goal is to prevent a more important charge, your blockers will have to take one for the team and hold against the charge to avoid the scenario I just described. You will most likely lose the unit, but provided you angled them correctly, the enemy will not be able to overrun into the unit you were protecting. They will probably choose to reform instead, ensuring they can still see their enemies and are not about to be flanked.

Use of expendable units to block charges and/or redirect is a fundamental skill that all good players need to understand, both to utilise the tactic and to respond to it. If it’s not something you’re familiar with, give it a try.

Cramping their style

The rules for manoeuvring regiments in Warhammer are quite specific. There are limitations to how flexibly a ranked up unit of soldiers can move, and this is reflected in the rules. Understanding these rules is key to moving your own units without cheating. However, it can also be used to interfere with the movements of your opponent.

In 8th edition, no units are permitted within 1” of each other except when a charge takes place (or a character joins a unit). This restriction applies not just to the front of the unit, but in every direction. As such, if you place a unit (even a single model) 1” away from the flank of an enemy, you will severely restrict the unit’s ability to wheel, and potentially to reform. If the enemy charges he can come closer, but he still can’t move through you. If your opponent doesn’t realise what you’re about (or doesn’t understand the movement rules as well as he should), he could find himself stuck in an awkward position.

Baiting frenzied troops is not as easy as it used to be in previous editions, however it is still possible. Nowadays a unit can test to restrain the charge, however even a unit with high Leadership is in peril of failing the test if it strays out of range of the reroll from the Battle Standard.
Frenzied troops tend to have tongue control and drooling problems. But they strike groovy poses.
Frenzied units that fail their Berserk Rage test must declare a charge on the nearest eligible unit, so it is possible to force their behaviour in a very specific manner, provided they lose control in the first place. Unfortunately, the rules do not state that they may not redirect the charge if you flee, so unless you want them changing targets, you can’t afford to flee from the charge. On the bright side, they will have to test even if they would require a charge roll of a 12 to get to the target. So there is some hope for the poor unfortunates whose job it is to bait the angry, angry men – they may be able to stay out of range.

Those who are not fortunate enough to stay out of reach of the frenzied troops will most likely be cut to ribbons, bashed to a pulp, or gnawed upon excitedly. However, here the manipulation of your enemy continues, as the frenzied unit will be forced to overrun or pursue, rather than reforming on the spot. Provided you have planned it properly, the enemy should be ripe for a flank charge or well out of the battle by the time they’ve stopped running.

Stick and twist
A very basic manoeuvre that some people don’t really seem to consider is to angle units that are about to be charged. The charger will always align to the target, assuming there is room to do so. As such, as the target for the charge, you have the opportunity to dictate where the enemy will end up. For your small, expendable units, this means you can dictate the direction of the enemy’s pursuit or overrun moves, as described earlier. However, larger Steadfast units which you’re expecting to stick around can utilise the tactic as well. By angling yourself (and your enemy, when they arrive), you are exposing their flank to your lines. Assuming you can hold for a round of combat, you are opening the potential for a counter-charge that could swing the combat.

This may seem very simple, but you’d be surprised how often people seem to ignore this. A word of caution, too – make sure you understand how you determine the front arc of a unit before you try something tricky. If you angle yourself too much and open yourself up for a flank charge, you might wish you hadn’t tried it at all…

There are other ways to directly affect your opponent’s movement, however these tend to be race-specific. Items and skills such as Siren Song and the Master Rune of Challenge can force your opponent into declaring charges he might not wish to make. This is a powerful tool when used correctly. Spells like Titillating Delusions can drag units out of position and completely destroy your opponent’s game plan. Even something seemingly minor like Tree Singing can convince a unit not to move somewhere in particular (even if just for fear of losing Steadfast if they stop inside the forest). Not all armies have access to tools such as these, however they can be decisive (and for an opponent, frustrating) when they come into play.

Strengths and weaknesses
I promised in one of the earlier articles in this series to come back to this topic, so here it is.

Warhammer is a game of strengths and weaknesses. Were this not the case, there would not be so many distinct armies for a player to choose from (there are 15 army books at the time of writing). No two races look the same, and none of them share identical strengths and weaknesses. This gives the armies their character and provides variety (without which players would tire of the game and move on). This variety is continued within the armies themselves, with most races providing a range of options to suit different purposes and playing styles (although generally within reason, in order to maintain the overall feel of the race).

In general, each unit will lend itself to a particular role within the army. Certain races may specialise in a particular role, in which case they may have a number of choices that excel in that area. As a general rule, the roles of some types of unit are so obvious that they are not worth discussing. Wizards, missile troops and war machines are pretty self-explanatory. Characters are often tough, generally dangerous, and frequently expensive. I've left the obvious stuff alone and am focusing on other units - you know, the ones that will probably take up half your points, and make up three quarters of the models on the table...

Most units can be fitted into one (or in some cases two) of the categories below. These are the primary roles you can expect units to fulfill, and understanding which units are best suited for which roles will help you get the most out of your troops. You can often tip a unit from one category to another by the addition of a magic banner, a spell, or the inclusion of certain types of characters, however most units will have a natural role in their army.

These are the dangerous units in any army. They are the units with the best attacking profiles, generally resulting in the generating a large number of high strength attacks. These tend to be the units that will draw your attention when you start collecting the army - they will often also have some of the most impressive models, to go with their status as the elite of the army. Hammer units are often expensive in terms of points, however they are not necessarily hard to kill - their potentially high Weapon Skill and good equipment will be offset by their price and resultant small numbers.
Can't touch this... No, wait! Wrong Hammer...
Hammer units present your best chance of winning combats and killing enemy troops. It is no good holding up combats and absorbing damage if you can't then tip the scales in your favour and carry the day. A hammer unit may be able to look after itself by compensating for casualties by inflicting even more damage to the enemy, however the attrition rate will mean they can't do it repeatedly. The meeting of two such units will generally result in a lot of dead models on both sides. This can be spectacular, however it will most likely be expensive for the loser and pretty much write off the unit of the victor as a force in the game as well.

One thing a hammer unit generally won't do is buy you time. It is not designed to absorb damage, so it will lack numbers and the individual models may lack resilience. The unit may not find itself in serious peril against genuinely inferior troops, but then it is not really the hammer unit that is doing the delaying - it is the one being delayed.

Players will be most keen to deploy a hammer unit in Horde formation, in order to get the maximum number of models fighting. Where a Horde is not an option (most likely because the unit was too expensive to be bough en masse), the unit will often still go 7 or 8 models wide, in order to get as many models in the front rank into base contact as possible.

Examples of hammer units are: Swordmasters, Executioners, Ironguts, Kroxigor, Chaos Warriors, Rat Ogres, Bloodletters, most heavy cavalry and chariots.

An anvil unit is tough and difficult to break. Its primary purpose is to hold the enemy in place, and buy time for hammer units to arrive to break the deadlock. An anvil unit may be able to out-fight moderate opposition, thanks largely to its toughness resulting in fewer casualties. However, in general terms the unit will not kill a lot of enemies, partly because it lacks damage potential, and partly because it may not be deployed in the right formation. An anvil unit will generally be deployed deep, in order to make best use of its rank bonus and Steadfast.

Common attributes in an anvil unit are high toughness, good armour or ward saves, and a likelihood that they will pass break tests - it's no good losing almost no models if you then turn and break anyway.

There is some overlap between hammer and anvil units, most frequently where a unit of high-quality infantry has the Stubborn rule. Units such as Empire Greatswords, High Elf White Lions and Dwarf Hammerers have solid damage potential and because of their Stubborn, they don't need to deploy deep in order to ensure they don't break. As such, you may consider deploying them in a Horde, which will make them effective both offensively and defensively.

Some units are never really intended to get into combat. Their role is to harass the enemy by getting in close, interfering with movement, and at least making noises about charging vulnerable targets unless they are treated as a valid threat. These units often have missile weapons, so they can contribute in some small way whilst carefully avoiding a serious engagement. I've classified them as feathers for want of a better word.

Feather units are often cavalry, although some fast skirmishing and/or scouting units perform a similar role. The unit needs to be fast and manoeuvrable enough to avoid being charged, whilst getting close enough to cause problems.

Some armies possess several units that fit the bill here, most notably Wood Elves, Dark Elves and Lizardmen. Should the player so desire, he can field an army that will dance about the enemy, pouring shots into them and picking off weak targets. This is generally termed a "shooty avoidance" approach, and is almost universally despised by opponents - it is effectively designed to avoid the sort of game that most armies are built for, and as such it leads to frustration. If you want to avoid the situation where nobody wants to play your army anymore, it's best to keep your feather units to a supporting role, rather than basing the list around them.

The Expendables
These units are the cheap and nasty options in the army. Their low cost means they can be thrown away with little regard for the Victory Points, so they really do get the worst jobs.

Expendable units are generally used for two things - delaying the enemy, and dying. Units like Skaven Slaves are so cheap that they can be fielded in vast numbers, thus guaranteeing themselves Steadfast, which means they can be relied upon to delay the enemy so long as you keep your general and BSB nearby. Granted, they will potentially die in droves whilst doing this - but this is expected and a sacrifice most players are willing to make. Smaller units like cheap cavalry will often be used to block charges and divert the enemy - a task which is fraught with danger, especially if you're not planning to flee as a charge reaction...

Some expendable units are obvious, like Skaven Slaves, Gnoblars and Goblins. In fact, some armies are well known for their ability to field these units at will. However, most armies have at least one option that will be used in this manner - it is a vital role in many games. In any given army book, the unit most likely to be treated as expendable is the one that can be fielded the cheapest. This may mean that the model cost is not exceptionally cheap, but the minimum unit size is low enough to make the unit as a whole easily affordable (and thus expendable). For High Elves and Wood Elves, this means Great Eagles (noblest and most abused of birdies). For the Empire, it means detachments. Units of cheap cavalry like Goblin Wolf Riders and Marauder Horsemen are also popular candidates. There are even characters that get "volunteered" for this sort of abuse. Warlock Engineers, Night Goblin Big Bosses and Dwarf Dragon Slayers are all some of the cheapest ways to field a stand-alone unit in their repective armies.

There are rare cases where some of the cheapest units in an army can still be dangerous when equipped properly, such as Chaos Marauders. However, these are few and far between. In all other cases, you will most likely never see an expendable unit deploy in anything approaching a Horde formation. They will generally be set up in as deep a formation as possible, in order to make best use of the Steadfast rule.

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock
Deliberately stacking an army with a particular type of unit will obviously go a long way toward dictating that army's playing style. An army that is loaded with hammer units will live and die by the sword, pulping some opponents, being outfought by the odd army that does it better, and being slowed and picked off by an army with plenty of expendable units.

To a certain extent there is a rock-paper-scissors circle that exists between these units, however it's not as clearly cut as that might lead you to believe. All units are different, which means they vary slightly in terms of how well they perform their designated task, before you take into account variables such as unit size and external factors like spells. You cannot guarantee a specific unit will be successful in its role, and whether that role is even useful will depend on how the rest of the game is going (no point buying time when nobody is coming to the rescue).

For all that there are no guarantees, thinking about these roles before you make your army will help you ensure that your force will be suited to the game you want to play. Some armies are better at favouring a certain role than others, however that need not stop you from trying something different if you're feeling adventurous. Just bear in mind that trying to fit a square peg into a round hole can require better rolling than normal...

Well folks, that concludes the Skill in Warhammer series (which seems to have become something of a Warhammer 101 somewhere along the line). As I say, I may revisit this topic in the future to look at some more specific aspects of the game in more detail. Or if I think of a gaping hole I left from the basics...

1 comment:

  1. WOW.

    That was a seriously BIG mouthful.

    Thanks heaps for taking the time to expand your thoughts like that. Really enjoyed the read.

    Very informative.