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TACTICA: Army Design

4 Minute Read
Mar 19 2007

This is a first in a series of posts regarding the basics of selecting, designing, and collecting an army.

I usually see tons of post saying, “here check out this unbeatable list”, yadda, yadda, and most of those lists suck, or are so ridiculous that no one would ever actually field them or play against them. What you rarely see are folks describing their thought process that goes into the design of an army, abstracted and apart from the actual list itself. This series will address that.

Army Selection

So you want to play this game and you don’t know what to play. As I have always told newcomers, ultimately this hobby of ours is a Visual Experience. That is, we don’t sit behind a computer, or play it with cardboard chits, but with nicely painted minis on a hopefully beautiful board. Few things are as satisfying as having a game using two stunning armies clashing on a gorgeous table. Those games are more memorable to me than the most hard fought tournament game fought between two unpainted forces on a folding table covered with felt and books for mountains…. Bleagh… who wants to spend their free time doing that.

Where is this going…. Well let the models lead you. While some will dispute this In General, GW has balanced 40k fairly well and all the armies are overall good. That said, look at the models, read the fluff, and take a look through the Rulebook, and the Codices. Go with the army that most visually excites YOU. There is no wrong decision.

List Categorization

So you have an army selected, bought the codex, love its looks and have a bunch of money burning a hole in your pocket. All your friends are telling you about so and so who runs this crazy army and how it can’t be beat, and how this Special character is cheaty, and how you need to buy 9 Venerable Dreadnoughts because the rules don’t say you cant, and you are paralyzed with doubt.

First things first. Design out a nice list on paper First, then slowly start to collect towards it. I usually sit down and go over every unit in a codex and categorize them as follows (units can have multiple categories:

Firepower (this unit is really good at laying down the smack stick)
Assault (This unit is above average at HTH combat)
Mobility (This unit moves very quickly)
Resiliance (This unit can absorb significant damage and survive)
Utility (This unit can be adapted to a large number of roles)
Transport (This unit can carry other units)
Barrage (This unit can fire without exposing itself to the enemy)

Examples would be:


Chaplain: Assault/Mobility(jump pack)
Tactical Marine Squad: Utility/Resiliance
Whirlwind: Barrage
Land Raider: Transport/Mobility/Resiliance
Devastator Squad: Firepower/Resiliance

Army Theme

Now that you have categorized your units, decide based on your whim, what is the goal of your army. Do you want a fast army that destroys the enemy in hand to hand or via shooting? Do you want a large number of resiliant units who can take whatever the enemy dishes out, or a larger number of weaker ones?

In general, you should pick 2 of the above categories and stress them, with a small helping of the others to round out the force. An army that tries to do all things fails to do any.

In general, Resiliance and Mobility tend to be mutually exclusive as do Firepower and Assault (there are exceptions, but they are usually VERY pricy).

List Design

Ok, you now have an Army, knowledge of unit abilities, and a theme. How do you construct a list? My recommendation is “Combat Blocks” What is a Combat Block you say, well I will tell you. A Combat Block is a group of 2-4 Force Org Selections that are designed to work together to accomplish a goal, in fact it will be one of the characteristics you have selected as your theme.

When making a Combat Block, I personally emphasize a larger number of duplicate units over a smaller number of larger ones, as that:
a) increases my number of scoring units
b) gives me more choice when deploying
c) hampers my opponents due to target saturation with multiple units of roughly the same threat level.


Here is an example Firepower combat block I use to anchor a marine firing line:

Devastator Squad
Devastator Squad
Dreadnought (with all ranged weapons)

This group of units will deploy to support each other and accomplish their overall goal of providing firepower for the rest of the army.

Here is my Mobility combat block used in my Eldar army:

Warp Spiders
Jetbike Farseer

As you can see, combat blocks come from different areas of the Force Org chart, and deploy at different times, but they are designed to work in concert during the game to accomplish a specific goal.

In an average army I will build 2 combat blocks for each army category I am building for, with at least 1 unit in each block having an alternative categorization I can use in a pinch if i come up against something unexpected. In the above example, the Warp Spiders can assault in a pinch if I HAVE to countercharge. They aren’t the best at it, but I have the option.

Putting it All Together

In short, without going into individual list specifics, this technique is a way of training your mind, and helps new players get into the game, settle on an army that they are excited about, and build a focussed list that has a sense of purpose on the tabletop, instead of the diluted “one of everything” lists you see losing time after time. It also gets the critical thinking part of your noggin churning my forcing you to decide on what it is your list is trying to accomplish, instead of letting your foe dictate the battle and your tactics for you.


Next Time: The Eldar: Combat Groups and overall Philosophy.

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