The real topic here revolves around the question of “Is 40K a tournament-worthy game?” I think it kind of is… at least more so than it used to be.
What makes it worthy of tournament play is the level of diversity amongst competitive armies contrasted with the inverse (lack of diversity). It also depends on the willingness of the game’s player base to be competitive and breaking out of its hobby gaming niche.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game!
40K is notorious for producing players that just aren’t… good at playing the game. It’s understandable, though, because it’s a hobby first and a game second. People just want to put together their plastic ‘dudesmen’ and roll some dice to see what happens. Really? REALLY? That’s all it can be for some people and while I can respect that in some capacity, come ON! That’s how I played Monopoly when I was six. Have the guts to be an analyst and critical thinker! You may learn something. But I digress. There’s just a natural tendency for hobbyists to gravitate towards this game, so we can’t expect a fantabulous tournament scene to pop up overnight.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander?
Uniformity is bad. Marx would hate me for saying that there should be class divisions. Oh well. In competitive gaming there is inequality, or at least the perception of inequality, between players and between the various factions those players utilize. This inequality is the basis of competition. If a game becomes too balanced it ends up hitting a big fat plateau of dullness. There needs to be an occasional shake-up of the rules as well as the regular release of new armies so that the dullness is alleviated. Change is exciting. Just so we’re clear, I’m talking about sci-fi/fantasy gaming and not politics.
Diversity isn’t just a wooden ship anymore.
Did I say that uniformity is bad? Did I say that diversity is good? Actually they’re both good, to a degree… and bad, to a degree. Probably the most desirable state at which the various factions within a game system should exist is one of almost relative parity.
Say for instance that there is a power scale that is used to rate factions. The scale is from zero to ten (ten being the highest power level). Every faction within a game should hover around a power rating of five. A healthy game will have faction power levels that are able to diversify around that standard level of five. Some will be sixes, some will be fours, and occasionally there will be a seven or a three. But the closer they keep to the standard of five, the greater the overall game balance will be.
Whenever a faction receives a revamp, its power level will be re-evaluated. This re-evaluation in respect to all other factions will determine its place on the power scale. The re-evaluation process in 40K is what keeps it from being a truly competitive game. Since 40K is a game involving a massive amount of dice rolling, decision points and long-term strategy, there are a huge number of variables to consider when re-evaluating the power level of an army. Since there is such a large element of hobbyists that play the game, and since those hobbyists think that because they make up the majority of the game’s players, the hobbyists feel that they are ultimately more knowledgeable about the game’s workings than the non-hobbyists that spend more time actually playing and analyzing tactics and strategy. There is also an issue with the amount of time and coordination required with setting up a game of 40K. The average 2000 point game is going to take at least an hour, if not more, before the players have a general idea of who will win and why.
So because of the lack of critical analysis and the relatively low quantity of games played, there is much less experience that goes into the re-evaluation of power levels than in other competitive games (e.g. Magic: The Gathering). There are other factors that contribute to the lack of critical analysis of 40K faction power levels, and they usually fall into other categories like disposable income, transportation, available playing space, etc.
As a result, in most areas where 40K has a decent player base only about fifteen percent of it is competitive. This small pool of competitive minds usually turns out a short-sighted or narrow-minded analysis of power levels. Because of this general lack of critical/comparative analysis, what happens in these microcosms is that there is a general free-for-all of armies. The most competitive-minded players will usually end up at the top of the heap of hobbyists. In the long run, what happens is that the alpha dogs that rise to the top of each relatively small group of players have no good benchmark against which to compare their armies. Even the internet yields little critical comparative analysis for power levels because the alpha dogs don’t like to think that their winning streak is due to anything but their own personal mastery of 40K and not just the mastery of their local scene.
Since there is really no comparative analysis of power levels, all that 40K players have to go on when making meta game choices (which army and which configuration they will use in a tournament) is their personal experience, the on-record performance of armies at major competitive events, and the obvious power levels of each codex. The term ‘obvious’ in this case refers to the grounded opinions that in 40K there is a highly apparent level of overwhelming force when compared to cost. If many units in a codex have a high number of units with overwhelming force for a relatively low cost, this is ‘obviously’ a high powered codex.
Back to business.
So it all comes down to the big question: What army do you use for the ‘Ard Boys tournament? The best thing you can hope to do when choosing an army is to analyze the obviously powerful armies out there and look for trends amongst them. For instance, Dark Eldar, Imperial Guard, Space Wolves and Blood Angels could all be classified as ‘obviously powerful.’ Army builds that have a good track record are the IG ‘leafblower,’ Space Wolf ‘razorspam,’ Blood Angel ‘mech marines,’ and what I’ll refer to as Dark Eldar ‘MSU’ or multiple small units.
The major trend amongst these forces is armor. Each of these armies uses at least a half dozen (and sometimes up to a dozen) vehicles ranging anywhere from AV10 to AV12. There are other patterns as well: Half of them use power armored troops while the other half have flak. Three out of four have good, if not great, close combat capability. Three out of four have massed long-range firepower. They all utilize upwards of a dozen units, with IG hitting the high teens. All of them take full advantage of the fact that their troop selections are strong in the category of shooting or close combat…or both.
So let’s look at these obviously powerful armies in a predatory manner. We need to look for patterns among their weaknesses and consistent methods for exploiting those weaknesses. When I use the term ‘exploit’ I am referring to a specific method of thinking. This is the rock-paper-scissors method, meaning if they have paper, you need to bring the scissors…and so on and so forth. If the pattern is ‘armor’ then you need to bring anti-armor. If the pattern is ‘psykers’ then you need to bring anti-psykers.
The trends of weakness amongst these armies are:
Low squad sizes and/or weakly armored troops.
The interesting thing about these forces is that they tend towards minimizing unit size while maximizing unit upgrades. For instance, Grey Hunters are fielded in units of five, often equipped with a Meltagun and Mark of the Wulfen. IG Veteran squads are ten men strong, but they carry the maximum number (3) of special weapons and have flak armor. Dark Eldar units are just as frail as IG Veterans. This is a weakness that is easily capitalized upon by massed small arms fire, a well-placed template weapon, or both.
Low AV vehicles.
Occasionally one of these armies will deviate from the obvious and use a vehicle with a high armor value (Leman Russ, Land Raider), but for the most part you’ll never see anything heartier than a Storm Raven or Venerable Dreadnought. Even those are relatively rare compared to the prevalence of the AV12 Chimera. So with the slight exception of IG, these armies are highly vulnerable to massed medium-strength long range fire. In the land of the open-topped vehicle, the twin-linked autocannon is king.
Considering that ‘squad leader’ is an upgrade that isn’t usually chosen for units in min-max’d armies, it’s not uncommon to see entire forces relying on an average leadership value of 8. While 8 isn’t bad, it’s only effective 72% of the time, and that’s assuming it doesn’t get modified. LD7 is 58% effective and LD6 is 41%, so even a small modification is going to put LD8 units in a bind. Capitalizing on low leadership is done in subtle ways. The ideal way to deal with it is to cause a modified morale check (as was mentioned). Barring the existence of a modifier that would give a failed morale check a higher likelihood of happening in one try, the next best way to cause a failed check is to cause multiple checks. Given that the rules say you can only cause one morale check for 25% casualties, and one morale check for losing close combat (per losing unit), you have to find other ways to cause multiple checks. Tank Shock and pinning tests are great for this sort of thing, as well as are other random unit abilities.
Large unit count.
The obvious pattern in these armies (especially since we’re hitting 2500 points) is that with all the armor (transports and otherwise), extra independent characters and min-maxed small units, the unit counts skyrocket. This can be a huge drawback when it comes to missions that involve kill points; from the way many tournament missions are working these days, kill points can have an effect on every game. If you want to capitalize on an army’s MSU (multiple small units) factor, then you have a couple of options. First and best is the ability to use large assault units to charge multiple enemies at once. This allows you the ability to use the casualties caused against one unit to modify the leadership test of a second or third unit. Additionally, you can use grenades and other higher strength attacks against vehicles (no, don’t go after those walkers just yet!) while you’re simultaneously chewing on units of troops. The second best way to deal with large numbers of units is to use attacks that may affect multiple units, e.g. tank shock (and ramming), Jaws of the World Wolf, various template weapons, etc.
Ruh-Roh Raggy! What’s it all mean?
Having looked at the weak spots of the obviously powerful armies out there, we come to the final list of requirements for mashing them up: low squad size, AV, LD and high unit count. But there’s one more thing I need to bring up. When you’re comparing the power levels of combat forces it’s important to note that there is an algorithm that will usually determine the winner of the conflict with some degree of certainty. To make a long story short, you’re going to total up the firepower of Forces A and B. Then you’re going to alternate dropping each force’s firepower by the attrition factor inherent to the opponent’s level of firepower. It looks something like this:
Force A = 20 power
Force B = 20 power
the attrition rate = 10% of attacking power (subtract from defending power)
Force A attacks first, causing attrition of 2, leaving B with 18
Force B attacks second, causing attrition of 1.8, leaving A with 18.2
Force A attacks third, causing attrition of 1.82, leaving B with 16.18
Force B attacks fourth, causing attrition of 1.618, leaving A with 16.582
…and so on and so forth. In this scenario it’s pretty easy to determine that Force A will come out on top for one obvious reason: it dealt damage first. This is a pitched battle, and it’s something that any good student of strategy will want to avoid. If you’re going to beat this field of competitors you’re going to have to consistently cause more damage than you suffer. Yes, of course, that’s a no-brainer, but so many players get wrapped up in one line of thinking or another to the point where they lose focus and end up chasing some kind of white whale.
The reason I bring this entire equation business up is that it’s very possible in the current environment to run the gambit of rock-paper-scissors and come out on top because of the sheer number of fragile opposing units. You have the potential to take out a lot more of the opponent’s units than they do of yours, simply because of the pattern of low-resilience units you’ll be facing.
And the million dollar question…
What will win? What will beat the current range of armies? I’d like to say that there is a definite answer out there. There is a really high potential for Dark Eldar to win some major victories because their lists are all highly versatile, can take a beating and continue to function, and are able to pour out an amazing amount of firepower. I think they are the #1 pick because of their potential to completely outmaneuver opposing armies. They have the advantage of being able to completely reposition their forces; this allows them to divvy up an opposing army that is less maneuverable and more dependent on their units’ teamwork.
I also want to say that regardless of anything I’ve written here, the ‘Ard Boys events have a habit of throwing a massive wrench into conventional thinking. Last year’s preliminary event saw probably the most horribly imbalanced mission in its final round. Annihilation with fast-moving units worth 3 kill points (any vehicle, drop-pod, jump troops, cavalry, etc). This completely wrecked 70% of the field and heavily influenced my decision to use Tyranids in lieu of the mechanized Blood Angels I’d originally planned on.
Round one is behind us and my guess is that this year we will see some similar shenanigans. What army type do you think is gonna make it to the top after all three rounds?