40K: The “Unbound” Problem


Unbound Armies are pointless in a world of Detachments and Formations – Let’s talk about the “Unbound” Problem.

Unbound Armies were the “internet-boogeyman” when the current edition of Warhammer 40,000 hit the shelves. “Wait, you can take ANYTHING in your collection? That’s SOOOO broken!” I heard countless times as players would come across the “Choosing Your Army” section on page 116-117 of the BRB. Everyone was talking about how game-breaking and non-nonsensical it was. Then came along the first couple batches of formations to hit the scene and the gap between Unbound and Battle-forged Armies started to show. That gap has been growing ever sense.

citadel-green-stuff-blister-packSorry Green Stuff – this is one ‘Gap’ you can’t fix.

Now, personally, I still prefer the good old Combined Arms Detachment construction rules or as I like to call it: ClassicHammer. I’m not advocating a move back to that system, but that’s just my cup’o’tea and that’s what works for me. But what I don’t like to see is an entire way to play completely ignored by just about everyone – Unbound is a valid way to play…it just happens to be terrible now. So what happened? Well, let’s talk about the original intent of Unbound and see how that stacks up to today’s era of 40k.

Unbound & Original Intent

Unbound was originally intended to do a few things. It was introduced to get new players into the game as quickly as possible. “Bring what you got and start playing!” No need for complicated formations or filling out a CAD – just play! It was also a great way to try out new unit combinations or even new armies that you had never used before. “Sure, toss in some Ork Boyz and give them a whirl.” This could have led to players getting a taste for a different army or play style. But really, for veterans at least, it was a chance to create the ultimate narrative army. If you got tickled by a piece of fluff about Dark Eldar experimenting on Tyranids and wanted to mix them you could. It could have led to some cool modeling opportunities.

dark-eldar-picWe have such sights to show you…

But now, all three of those things have been subverted by just about everything else. If you’re a new player talking to a veteran player and you ask them, “Where should I start with a new XXX Army?” They should tell you to go pick-up a starter box because you can start playing as soon as you’re done assembling your models. On top of that, each box has a “legal” formation that also nets you bonuses. New players can completely bypass the need to play Unbound.

What about trying out new units? Okay this one is still an option, but really, who’s buying new units to test out in a list? I’ve never met a casual player that said, “I think I’ll buy just one random unit from another army I don’t play and just toss it in my current army to play with.” Most of the time it was a tournament player that was thinking, “Oh wow, that unit looks good and if I grab it plus an HQ and maybe a cheap troop I can run it in my list as an Allied Detachment” Again, completely bypassing the need for Unbound.

What about those narrative aspects? Well sure, there are still those inspiring stories on the fringe of “what could be” but I have a question for you – Which is more true to the Lore: An army that is a Hodge-podge of units thrown together to reflect some story that might have been fan-fic you read one time or Formations that are designed to represent how the army actually fights in battle? Because that’s exactly what a Space Marine Battle Company is supposed to be – a representation of how the Marines go to war. So which is more true to the Lore?

BattleDemiCompanyBundleThat’s about as “Fluffy” as it gets…

Unbound Just Doesn’t Have A Place Anymore

Unbound no longer fulfills those roles that it was originally created to fill anymore. On top of that, it’s getting weaker and weaker as an option as time goes on. With each new Codex and Supplement that comes out new Formations and Detachments are added to the game. And while Unbound lets you take a truly flexible combination of units you own, Formations and Detachments just give you FREE STUFF. There’s really nothing else to say about it – Formation Power Creep killed Unbound.

It’s ironic that Tournament Organizers were pretty panicky about Unbound (and some still are) when there are other formations out there that are just plain better. Battle-Forged armies have been getting all the buffs and Unbound hasn’t even been considered sense the current edition of 40k was introduced…

king-kong-vs-godzillaTurns out it was just a couple of guys in monster suits…not really that scary.

What would you rather play against: An Unbound army list of semi-random characters and units or the latest Battle-Forged meta army that is basically the same thing but with a bunch of extra rules and other free stuff just because? It’s kinda messed up that players can build the same army with the same models in two different ways and end-up with vastly different “power-levels” at the end. And here I thought Unbound was supposed to be the boogey-man.

Making Unbound Useful

So how can we make Unbound useful again? Well, that’s tricky part. I don’t think that anything you do to unbound will make it nearly as good as the free bonuses of Formations/Detachments. But that actually leads me to my first fix: Formations should cost points. Detachments should be free but if you want to run a Decruion-Style Detachment, then you’ll pay a “Points Tax” with each Formations you choose. This “tax” doesn’t have to be super expensive points-wise either. But it needs to be more than what it currently is – which is ZERO. I know I’ll get hate for it, but I think that’s one thing that Age of Sigmar does right.


The next thing I’d test out to see if it makes Unbound useful is to have it mess with the Allies matrix. Unbound Armies should be allowed to treat Allies ONE level higher than they are on the Allies chart. So, if you’re Desperate Allies normally, you are now considered Allies of Convenience. If you’re Allies of Convenience you’re now considered Battle Brothers. And so on. If you’re already Battle Brothers – sorry, you’re still Battle Brothers. If you want more of a bonus as Battle Brothers, go run a Formation…

The last tweak I’d like to see is that I’d allow both players to roll an extra time on the Maelstrom Missions chart to determine Objectives for the round. Why both players? Because it sucks to get objectives you can’t complete. If your playing against an Unbound army and they took all HQ’s and you get the “kill a Fast Attack” objective…that just stinks.

I know players already have tons of house rules in place but I’d like something actually in the rulebook to make it part of the game. Or at least some type of discard mechanic to allow you to use a default objective. So if you draw a card you can’t complete you can discard it to get a VP for destroying an enemy unit that round.

Final Thoughts

Unbound is in a bad place right now. I’m sure there are those folks out there that can’t stand the idea of Unbound Armies to begin with – I know how you feel, I was once just like you. But with the proliferation of Formations and Detachments, Unbound doesn’t seem all that scary anymore. Unbound isn’t helping to get new players on the tabletop – it’s been replaced by a better product line more so than a rules change. Unbound Armies are also becoming less and less “fluffy” compared to Formations. Which, to me, is also strange but that’s how the game is shifting.

Maybe Games Workshop just needs to kill Unbound and be done with it. Maybe in the next edition they will do something to make Unbound useful again. But for now Unbound has a problem – There is no point to play Unbound anymore.


What do you think? Is Unbound on life support and just needs to have the plug pulled or can it be revived?

  • Djbz

    Unbound now would be more for a themed list that isn’t covered by current formations and detachments.
    Like an Imperial guard rough rider company for example (nothing covers that)

    • generalchaos34

      you can take that under the DKoK rough rider list in Siege of Vraks. It even turns one of the squads into a command squad that gives orders

      • Djbz

        I was unaware of that.
        Are they decent rules?

        • generalchaos34

          really good actually, the regular DKoK death rider is miles ahead of your regular RR. for a few points extra they have 4+ armor. 2W. WS 4, they dont take LD from shooting, and a 6+ FnP. Oh and Krak grenades. Only problem is no option for special weapons (but the command squad can get demo charges and all Sgts get melta bombs. Oh and they can be bought like regular IG platoons so you can get platoon sgts with orders too. Plus you can still buy the good DKoK stuff like Artillery carriages and Thudd Guns to give your horse boys some support!

      • Chad Underdonk

        Doesn’t matter…they aren’t Attilans festooned with grenades, chain sabers, body odor, and bad attitude!

        Therein lies the problem with formations…my boys are my boys…and they ain’t gonna count as somethin’ else! 😀

        I’ll never see a formation for my Valhallans, or my Attilans, or half my other stuff…because it isn’t currently supported.

        And the lads are too proud to have some other name even momentarily associated with them! 😀

  • Defenestratus


    Please – no more CAD for non-imperial armies.

    The CAD is an antiquated, character killing construct that just makes armies so boring to put together. I much prefer the new mega formations… so much fun to make lists now.

    • Ronin

      After having to deal and witness piranha wing drone spam, I respectfully disagree. The best formations make it so that it requires little tactics or strategy to do well. A guy who just started 40k could drop down one of these formations/detachments and do relatively well compared to a decade long vet fielding a CAD.

      • Defenestratus

        You say that as if its a bad thing.

        The fact that a newbie (who knows the rules) can school a vet is a good outcome.

        CAD is bad. Just plain stupid. I hate it with a passion – along with Allies.

        • Xodis

          The fact a newbie can school a vet based on the power of a units rules alone, is not good at all. If the newbie schooled the Vet based on superior tactics or because the dice gods were with him, thats a different story.

        • Ronin

          How is that a measurement of who’s better at the game then? What’s the point of playing a competitive game when tactics and strategy take a back seat to broken rules? That’s like saying I should play CSGO with a room of aim and wall hackers.

          I think formations are fine if you run them for narrative scenarios or apocalypse, but for competitive games, I prefer those that test how well you can outwit your opponent, not who can stack together the most broken rules and have an easier time sitting back on a lawn chair and letting their army do all the work. Easy way to do this is to have everyone be forced to use the same uniform CAD detachment. It’s still imbalanced between codexes, but at least you have a much more narrow gap between factions since the playing field is more level.

        • ZeeLobby

          Lol what? So now the vet takes that list and never loses a game?

        • Skathrex

          I think I get what you are saying, but you worded it somewhat badly.
          I partially agree, I think in the most parts Formations are better than a Standard CAD for portraying a Xenos (or Traitor) Force. Just because its a kind of “human” Army organisation.
          But I also agree with Ronin that the balance is way off.
          I think what would be better is the middelground they tried.
          The special, race specific CADs like with Orks or DE.
          For the DE on its just 3 more FA slots, which would help a lot, if you would not loose Obsec in comparison.
          Just streamline these Boni a bit. Standard CAD gives Troops Obsec and one other Force org choices.
          The DE gives more FA choices, but fixes Obsec to FA and Troops.
          Something like that

  • dinodoc

    More concerned with making Combined Arms detachments great again.

    • Ronin

      Only way I see it is to enforce a CAD only format. That’s what we’re doing on our next “Classic 40k” tournament. At this point, I don’t think CADs can compete on their own without support of formations.

      • generalchaos34

        Id like to see see Obsec become more rare, or better yet, Obsec applies ONLY to troops. None of this obsec drop pod bull I keep seeing (that inanimate piece of metal is now claiming that objective men, we better pack up since theres nothing we can do to stop it!)

        • Mr.Gold

          just make all dedicated transports non-scoring – you get a free transport, but that hunk of metal cannot score the objective – the men (or sisters) actually have to get out and guard it…

        • Garrett Alain Colas

          I thought vehicles couldn’t have objective secured?

      • Skathrex

        Just go with what the author said.
        Go with AoS and make Formations cost points. That limits the Boni.
        For example most Chaos Formations would cost 0 to 20 Points while the Cabal may be 40.
        And Demis or Skyhammers cost 100 etc.

    • ZeeLobby

      Here here. Those who still play in our group went back to CADs and ADs and the game plays so much better. There’s still faction imbalances, but it shows how glaringly bad things have gotten.

  • Jennifer Burdoo

    What stops you from having multiple detachments or formations of different armies? Say, one of Tyranids and one of Guard? If there is anything, right there is a good reason for a Cultist player to run Unbound. If not, then why bother?

  • CatachanCommissar

    “If you got tickled by a piece of fluff about Dark Eldar experimenting on Tyranids and wanted to mix them you could.”

    This sounds fun and I want someone to do this. Very fun fluffy battle idea, I need more of these in my life!

    • krisbrowne42

      Fluffy and really _not_ broken, as neither of these armies brings something the other doesn’t…

      • CatachanCommissar

        That’s true too! I don’t mind too broken if there is a narrative reason for it. For example; I’m ok with a deathstar chewing through my guardsmen squads if said guard can hold them up long enough that my general can get extracted!

        And certainly matched play needs balancing, but I am thankful I can do that with my gaming buddies pre tabletop, using voluntary consensus on unit types played/not played.

      • babelfisk

        Venom spam + flyrant spam is surprisingly powerful and compliment each other well.

  • krisbrowne42

    There are armies which haven’t had any love on the Formation front, or at least haven’t in any useful capacity… Dark Eldar got formations for what, 4 or 5 units? Leaving the rest in the cold… If they got a Detachment and formations, that’d be one thing, but for people who don’t want to run venom-spam or Covens, Unbound could provide a pleasing alternative while we’re waiting for GW to screw them next edition again.

    My thoughts on Unbound is that if the player is telling a story, let them roll with it and don’t play them with it again if it’s horrible and broken. Or maybe limit it to codices that don’t have the ridiculous formation options SM and Craftworlds have (Though at this point that’s mostly just ‘nids and DE)

  • Lord Elpus

    Bring back 2nd ed Percentages!

    • Defenestratus

      I’d be all about this as long as the percentages weren’t uniform across races.

      There’s no reason why my army should have the exact percentage of Troops as a Space Marine army does.

      • Lord Elpus

        Remember the points difference too though, ideally Marines should get a hike and all troops ( non vehicular) for Guard should get a drop.

  • Stealthbadger

    I don’t think 40k needs more rules. Particularly rules to fix a’problem’ that doesn’t really exist.

    • gordonshumway


  • Tim Brown

    If unbound goes away I for one won’t cry. Cherry picked units of Tyranids and Marines and Necrons all fighting on one side always was stupid.

  • OldHat

    I figure in 8th this will morph into the AoS style unbound – no point, no frills. Bring what you want, play what you want – HAVE FUN!

    Matched Play will be (ideally) a balanced version of our existing rules and hopefully, some formations will be rolled into a “thematic” style for Narrative Play, while others are for Matched.

    I am dreaming, of course… Sigh.

    • ZeeLobby

      I mean it’s a good dream. I like that matched play AoS formations have a cost associated with them. It’s basically what’s missing. If the cost of the free transports formation canceled out getting the transports for “free”, it’d finally be fun to play against, if rather pointless.

      I still have close to zero faith that they’ll do a good job balancing any of it, or fixing balance issues speedily, but at least there’s a lot of other options on the market.

    • Adrien Fowl

      A book like the General’s Handbook for W40k, whether it’s part of the new edition or an addition to the current ed, would definitely drive me back into this game.

  • frankelee

    This game has become one of those kitchen sink ice cream sundaes, served in a punch bowl and covered in such a variety of gummy worms, Oreo crumbles, toffee nuts, and everything else in the store that it is not really palatable.

    • nurglitch

      You don’t have to order the works. There’s so many different ways to play now.

  • Interesting. I’m finding more reason to play an unbound army now than ever before. I don’t want any allies. I just want more slots with out the associated taxes. So, I’ll take my usual formation or Cad or what ever and just stick in what ever else I want after that.
    Or, Maybe skip the troops because I just want fat attack choices for my speed freaks.

  • ZeeLobby

    Formations NEED a cost. That’s basically it. Now, it’s true that the whole cost system of 40K is completely unbalanced, but right now formations basically just give you more good things for free. Oh and if you play the army that gets the best good things for free, you win.

    Personally I’d prefer a return to CAD simply because GW will never put the effort into balancing and rebalancing formations costs.

    • OldHat

      I honestly think part of what helps make 30k so successful is its adherence to the CAD. I love Formations, but they should maybe be a CAD entry of their own? Or at the least, as you said, give them a cost akin to AoS (and ones with no cost can’t be played in a 40k equiv of Matched Play).

      • ZeeLobby

        I mean all formations should at least have restrictions of some kind internally. I don’t like formations with 1+/2+ options. I agree that the CADs and even modified CADs of 30K are a reason it is praised for being a more balanced game at the moment. There’s also percentage restrictions for Lords of War (25%), what can arrive in drop pods, what slots are open depending on what CAD you pick, etc.

        All game design elements that used to exist in 40K, and have slowly been removed in favor of randomness as the game grew older. I REALLY just wish they’d show a concerted effort towards active game design in house. I mean the FAQs are good (though seeing how fast a second round is released will be the true indicator), but they’re really lacking that feedback loop necessary to keep a game fun for all factions.

  • Ronin

    I love how the topic was originally about unbound and the comments turned it into a discussion about detachments and formations. xD

    • Stealthbadger

      I’m just astounded there has been no whining about chaos space marines.

      • nurglitch

        Give it time. The Z-brigade is getting warmed up.

      • NNextremNN

        You kinda just did.

        • Stealthbadger

          Oh no, what have I become.

  • Mitchell

    5 Flyrants or 5 heldrakes or 3 wraith knights will still give a lot of formations more than a hard time. I do not appreciate formations with free stuff or unbound. And thus I started 30k.

  • Painjunky

    Don’t fix unbound. Tear down the whole 40k ruleset, fire all the designers and hire people who understand balance and can write clear and concise rules.

    Hiring people who actually play the game they are working on would help too.

    • Admiral Raptor

      This is the solution.

  • Joka

    Imho FOCs vs Unbound was a good way to go. You had the options of CAD, AD, Codex specific FOCs or Unbound. The former gave you some minor, easy to remember but really satisfying bonuses while the latter gave you freedom. And that was about it. Elegant in it’s simplicity.

  • Heinz Fiction

    Dude, if you want to play a narrative game, ignoring the army composition rules, just ask your opponent to set one up. You don’t need any ‘rules’ for ignoring the rules. That is what made unbound so pointless in the first place…

    • TenDM

      Exactly. We used to play Unbound in 2nd and 3rd Edition. It’s a fun way to play but it’s just a house rule. I don’t need GW’s blessing for that and making things like this official ‘the rule is there is no rule’ just muddies up other parts of the game.

  • OolonColluphid

    Just let Unbound die already. The only time it’s ever useful for playing fluffly Crimson Fists.

  • Crablezworth

    Formations ruined the game

  • Adrien Fowl

    Free formations make no bloody sense. They should cost points and the unbound choice should be out of the game.

  • MechBattler

    Unbound is only scary when someone shows up with Titans. A set of Warhounds with Turbo Lasers or Revenants with Pulsars will ruin ANY army’s day. Or, Emperor save us, one of the bigger ones.

  • Bryan Ruhe

    Unbound lets you throw your models on the table, regardless of what you’ve purchased and modeled. I would never consider it a valid tournament format, and it’s up to the tournament organizer to set boundaries. Unbound is great for casual play. It’s more of a sandbox and, by nature, more “loose” and flexible.

    I don’t understand why many miniature wargamers seem to be inflexible about agreeing on rules tweaks or changes.

    Just play in whatever way is most fun for you and your opponent.

  • Myu

    Good article

  • AX_472

    OK am i the only one who applies the ally matrix to unbound armies? because thats a no brainer to me and seems to have been ignored by the person who wrote this. Just because you can use whatever models you want doesn’t mean they get to ignore the rules of how they act together.

  • GiftoftheMagi

    Personally I like the idea of having a point cost or tax to Formations. Considering many Formations, especially the huge Decurion-style ones, offer rather large bonuses to armies beyond the model restrictions, I feel like a cost or tax is warranted, especially to keep Unbound and CAD armies competitive.

  • Daniel Jesse James Griffin

    The points tax idea wouldn’t work for armies that are already required to pay a “tax” in unit requirements, i.e. Possessed marines.

    • Skathrex

      There shouldn’t be a fixed tax like every Formation costs 50 Points and every Formation Detachment additional 40 Points.

      The Formation need there own Points. For example the Traitors Hate Formation with Possesed and a DP would cost 0, or 5 Points, because its a fix.
      While “good” formations like Skyhammer, Cabal etc should cost way more. Somewhere around 50-150 Points

  • Master Avoghai

    Actually the question is : why should we save unbound?

    If the current system of CAD and formations allows to play themed army and also allow people to enter the hobby, then what’s the point of “saving” unbound system?

    Let it die or let it be used in campaign games, to represent a special situation…

  • Dave Bacon

    I’m just here to say this: At the weekend, my Lions Blade double demi Dark Angels lost to an unbound Ork list…

    Make of that what you will.

    • Matt Craufurd

      Orks are totally broken though.

  • Matt Craufurd

    Unbound was a pretty decent idea, that many young and new players were doing anyway. The real problem for unbound was the competitive players shouting and crying about it. 90% of the discussion on the internet is by tournament players, who probably make up about 20% of the player base, and they just slaughter anything fun or fluffy with a poisonous narrative before it even gets a chance. For example, the Eldar Codex: for a casual player its a great book. Every unit is useful so you can field an army of models you like without worrying about their utility too much, but because competitive players min max the strongest units, its got this reputation of being broken, and un-fun. Its completely fine as long as you don’t spam Warp Spiders or Scatbikes. Same goes for Unbound. A new player could field a pretty basic army of models he likes, without worrying about army building restrictions and it would work fine, but the comp crowd have created a narrative that it was wrong before anyone even got a chance to play it.

  • Mordkanin

    You are aware that you can take Formations in Unbound, right? You just can’t have Detachments.

    • NNextremNN

      Pretty sure you can’t. It’s either Unbound or Battle Forged and the later would require you to put anything into a Detachment. Formations can be Detachments on it’s own.

      • Mordkanin

        “Unlike other Detachments, Formations can also be taken as part of Unbound armies. If they are, their units maintain the special rules gained for being part of the Formation.”

        Straight out of the rulebook.

        • NNextremNN

          But for what is Battle Forged then?

          • Mordkanin

            Battle Forged is made up exclusively of formations and detachments. The benefit is that a Battle Forged list is capable of using Detachment Command Benefits, while an unbound list cannot.

            For many armies, this basically just means losing Obsec from the CAD. In other armies, for instance Necrons, an unbound list means you can never take advantage of the “Ever-Living” +1 to RP granted by a Decurion, because while you can have the individual formations that make up a Decurion (Reclamation Legion, Canoptek Harvest, etc.) in an unbound list, it doesn’t count as a Decurion, because you’re unbound.