May 25, 2010

Winning the Game

How do you win a game of Warhammer 40k? Is it simply a matter of throwing some models on the table, lining up like 18th century gunlines and blasting away until everyone is dead?

I've seen everything suggested from reading Sun Tzu's Art of War to going through white papers published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. There's certainly a lot there.
The funny thing is that these have to do with actual war and conflict, and while some of it can be applied to 40k - it is at it's root, a game.
Were I to suggest something to read, it would be Two Person Game Theory (quick note, I'm providing these links for informational purposes - I have no affiliate agreements with Amazon... or anyone else for that matter). This book talks about the theory of playing games, oddly enough. It's a bit dry, but it goes into the social contracts that blogs have been waving about lately and how to deal with different types of situations and opponents.

I'm going to brush over five specific areas of how to win at 40k. It is possible to win without paying attention to these things, but the more time you spend on them, the easier it will be to truly see the battlefield and know what is going on - which leads you to more victories. My favorite victories are when neither player made a mistake, and the dice gods did not favor anyone. Lining up my Immolator Spam army against a 'Stealer Rush was not a "fun" game: there was 0 chance of him winning. When Rock beats Scissors, who cares? It was bound to happen anyways. But when Rock grinds out a victory against another Rock, or better still. manages to slip one by Paper - those are the Epic battles.

The five areas I want to focus on are:
  1. Familiarity
  2. List Design
  3. Deployment
  4. Initiative
  5. Control
Please note that these areas are not exclusive - there are more areas to focus on than just these, but I think these are the first key, and many others still fall under their auspices.
Also note that each of these focuses should have their own entire post - or even series of posts (especially in the case of Deployment). I may come back to that later, but for now I want to lightly brush over each of them.

Familiarity: There are two parts of familiarity - Know Thy Enemy and Know Thyself. How well do you know what your opponent is going to be able to do to you, how well can he react to what you are planning?Having your thrust turned into a sudden riposte can be startling and downright dangerous to your battle plans. How many games have you played with your specific army without fiddling around with unit composition? Know Thyself trumps the next focus of List Design. I like to call this the Clint Conundrum, so named after a local player who would show up to tournaments with the oddest Battle Force army lists... and stomp face. Do not take the latest/greatest YTTH 'Best Of' army list to a tournament (without playing it several times against several different army lists) and expect to come home with anything less than disappointment.

List Design: This is everyone's favorite. From the Codex to the individual units selected, this plays an integral part in being able to inflict your will upon the table top. Does it require maximization? Do we need to bust out spreadsheets to determine unit cost-effectiveness and threat ratings? Not really. Lots of people would have you believe that prevailing wisdom ("Orks suck" or "You brought a Techmarine? You noob!") dictates what you should or should not bring. Familiarity can make up for a lot in List Design, so don't worry too much that you really want to play Chaos Marines but are convinced you can't win with them - you can. But to ignore List Design is also like ignoring the Speed Limit on the highway: you can do it, but every so often you're going to pay the price for doing so and sometimes it can be catastrophic.

Deployment: Deployment is the single hardest focus to qualify in a paragraph. But some of the variables that you need to take into consideration are:
What role does your army play (shooty, mixed, assault, etc)?
What role does your opponent's army play (do you need to worry about pie-plates, scouting units, infiltrators, etc)?
What is the Deployment Zone and where will Reserves come from?
What are the objectives of the mission?
Who is going first - how should you react to your opponent's deployment or how you think you can make him react to yours?
What is being kept in Reserves (in either army) and how will it arrive (table edge, Deep Strike, Outflank, etc)?

Initiative: The previous focuses have been about 40k, this is universal - I learned it in chess first. The others are also all before the game has actually begin, this is the heart of the game. Initiative is not about what order your models fight in Assault, Initiative is about causing your opponent to react to what you are doing. If you are reacting to your opponent, then you have lost the Initiative. Active and mobile armies are the easiest to control Initiative, while passive and static armies have the hardest time controlling it. A gunline army can take, or at least control, the Initiative by controlling the avenues that your opponent has to reach you with. Focus fire and other army abilities give even the most sedentary army the ability to control their space.

Control: This also is a chess lesson. Of the focuses, the others are tools; this last is a result. You would think that the result should be victory - no, the result is Control. Control most often leads to victory, but desperation and luck play factors at the end of the game, so Control does not ensure victory. Use the other focuses to help you achieve Control. The first lesson in chess is Control the Center. You can do this by having units there or by being able to pour so much firepower into that spot that no one else can. When you get familiar enough with your list and your opponent's, you will also know when to give up this Control and instead go for Control Lanes/Areas. Bishops, Knights and Rooks do this in chess, and they back each other up. You can have overlapping firelanes or assault lanes and back them up by offering out the sacrificial pawn and destroying the higher value target that dares to take it. Control also extends to mission objectives, table quarters and the like. Be aware from turn one - not suddenly realizing on turn five that the game is about to end - what the mission objectives are and how you're going to claim and/or contest them.

There is nothing new here. I know most of my readers already follow most of the principles here, even if they had never thought of them in quite this way. The biggest advice I can give anyone is play - play, play, play. Know Thyself and Control are the two biggest factors in game winning and can make up for deficiencies in all other areas. So get out there and practice them by playing.


  1. Excellent article...just makes me sad I didn't get a game today though. :(


  2. Dice torture. Let the little buggers know that abandoning you at the bottom of turn three will have dire consequences.

    Hasn't worked to good for me so far, but at least now I can get into turn four before it all goes to pot.

  3. Great stuff. We can fight over lists all day, but it really comes down to application. Lists are important, but only a piece of the puzzle. The rest really just comes from experience.

  4. I'm with Chumby.

    There's a certain point at which you maximize your list efficiency, after which you concentrate on tactics and synergy.

    However, after having done so, you find that your list (over time) is so tailored to your own personality and/or style so much that it's hard to explain the workings of it to others. It also becomes very hard to meaningfully critique because it doesn't fit the pure efficiency mould anymore.

  5. Familiarity is a major key thing. The amount of people I've played who do not know what my army can do along with there own amazes me. Knowing your enemy helps, a little research goes a long way. It doesn't take long to put up a thread on many of the warhammer forums available and aks how to kill daemons for example. Talking of daemons I had a game against them ages ago, at the time I knew very little about them. After swotting up I knew bloodletters and crushers are extremely slow and flesh hounds can be annoying. Throw that in with target priority and you're one up already ;)

  6. I'd almost say knowing what your opponents army is going to do is more important than knowing what your army can do.

    Knowing that that X unit has 36" range S6 assault 3 guns is probably going to paste your MM/HF landspeeder when at best your only going to take out 1 of them.

    Knowing that the new (4th ed) defiler gained fleet when the old 3.5 defiler didn't have it will keep your crisis suits alive. (sorry about that StJ. - Old lesson, but I haven't forgot it yet.)

    I think most people know what their army is supposed to do. With the possible exception of trying a different race for the first time. Sometimes some wargear items get thrown in a unit leader that you didn't have to pay points for, thus you might over look it.

    I think most people know what their guns do and assault ranges/effectiveness of their own guys. But unless you collect all the codex, or actually play the army your facing yourself (as a second or third army), it would be really hard to know what to focus on.

    You can tell the other guy that your berzerkers love assault and hit hard. But until your opponent actually sees it happen they really don't know just how badly you do not want these guys in your lines. That speedbump unit they threw out there, might just have been a twig in the wind.

    Again, my army is going to function pretty much how I think it will function. But it functions better or worse if I know what parts of it to use to engage specific parts of the other guy. Anytime your guessing, there is a chance you are guessing wrong. Knowing your enemy removes a lot of the guess work. And the less guess work, the better your chances of winning are.

  7. What a great post!!

    Well thought out, excellent points and expertly presented. A throughly enjoyable read! Kudos...