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Master-crafted 40K
Introduction <> Army selection <> General strategy <> Deployment <> Improvising

Master-crafted 40K: Army selection
Editor's note: Army selection is perhaps the most crucial aspect of Warhammer 40,000. No matter how brilliant a tactician you are, you're not going to enjoy a lot of success with a poorly-designed army. In this first installment of Master-crafted 40K, two guest authors--Stan Reed and Ken Lacy--offer their perspectives on what makes a great army.

Don't ask. It's difficult to explain.Stan Reed (at right) says, "I currently have around 10,000 points of Space Marines, 6,000 of Orks, and about 4,000 of Battle Sisters. If you play this game long enough, armies just seem to get bigger without any real effort your part.

"After searching for years to find a Fantasy Battle Game to use as a backdrop to a D&D campaign, I discovered Warhammer Fantasy in 1991. I was hooked, and did not play D&D for 10 years, so enamored I was with this new game. Warhammer 40K didn't become a part of my gaming habit until the last summer of 2nd edition.

"In 1995, I acquired a comic book store, Borderlands, and by January of 1996 I started stocking GW products. Over the years, with much help from the local gaming community, I've built a gaming store in which, I think, anyone would like to do battle. The side effect of all this is, of course, that I do not get to play nearly as much as I would like."

Photo © copyright Lee Loftis. 
Stan is holding up a "tiger pelt" because he's under the delusion that he can beat the Fighting Tigers of Veda. Ha! 

Army selection by Stan Reed

The fool sayeth in his heart, “I hateth math.” 
The wise man sayeth, “Numbers art thy friends! Crunch them!”

There is nothing wrong whatsoever with figuring the odds of killing the enemy with weapon A or weapon B. Also, after every battle, ask if each unit did damage to the enemy equal to or greater than its points cost. Such information is not an absolute indicator of which units you should keep or dump, but the information may give you some insight as to why things are working or not.

The fool sayeth in his heart, “Squad size mattereth not.” 
The wise man sayeth, “Taketh large squads to assaulteth, taketh small squads to shooteth!”

Assault: Take large squads for two reasons: 1) You will lose models to shooting on the way across the table. You want to have enough models left to fight when you arrive. 2) When you win, you want to out number your opponent by as great a margin as possible, to “help” his break test.

Shoot: Most armies allow but few heavy/special weapons per squad. If you take small squads, you will have a greater density of the weapons that you have chosen “to do the job.” If you take small squads, the bad effects of breaking and being pinned are minimized.

The fool sayeth, “It mattereth not what weapons I choose.”
The wise man sayeth, “Chooseth thy weaponry carefully!”

If you choose your weapons haphazardly, you will not know what to do with them once the battle starts, even if you have the correct weapons for the job. Whenever you put a weapon in your army, ask yourself what exactly to what use you will put that weapon. If you do this, you will also deploy your army better. Put several weapons in your army that can do the same job. If you have only a single high strength gun in your army “to take care of any tanks,” then it will be gone after the first turn. Crunch numbers! If you are fighting Orks or ‘Nids, go to the trouble to determine whether or not a lascannon is better or worse than a heavy bolter.

The fool sayeth, “Taketh but a pair of Troops choices. All other types are superior.”
The wise man sayeth, “Chooseth thy soldiers well!”

Every unit must do at least one thing to help you in your objective. If it doesn’t, leave it out! You need to have at two or more units to perform any task. Example: if you are attempting a Rescue mission, and you have only one bike squad or trukk, or whatever, it will be dead after Turn One. As with the weapons, ask yourself what the unit is capable of, and what you specifically want it to do. Equip it so that it can do the job, and deploy it in the best place to do that job.

The fool sayeth, “Any army will doeth.”
The wise man sayeth, “Keepeth thy objective ever in thy mind as thine army is constructed!”

What do you want this army to do? Make an overall plan as to “how this army will work.” Every thing in it should contribute to that plan, either actively or passively. As you add units to the army, determine how they fit into the plan.

The fool sayeth, “Maketh thy characters as powerful as possible.”
The wise man sayeth, “Spendeth thy points on units!”

Characters are point sinks. Yes, it is cool to make your own personal characters, and fun to model them, but if you are playing to win (the premise of the series of articles), you will do better with squads. For example, a Marine Captain with a power sword, plasma pistol, and 100 points of wargear will cost 190 points. For fewer points than that, you get a squad of 10 marines with any heavy weapons you choose and plasma gun, or 7 devastators and 4 Missile Launchers, or 5 devastators w/ 3 Plasma Cannons. Or two Whirlwinds. Or 5 bikes. Or almost 4 Land Speeders. 

The fool sayeth, “Flamers sucketh.”
The wise man sayeth, “Templates art thy friends!”

Yes! It’s true! I can’t tell you the number of people that don’t take flamers because “The AP is so bad,” but won’t leave home without a power weapon because “Ooh! No armor save!” To inflict a casualty, 3 dice are rolled. One to hit, one to wound, and one for armor save. Anything that can cut out one of those rolls will help you. The power sword cuts out the save. The flamer cuts out the “to hit” roll. AND the flamer can hit more than one opponent! 

The fool sayeth, “High powered weaponry doth be superior.”
The wise man sayeth, “He who rolleth the most dice winneth!”

I can’t stress this enough: if you make your opponent roll enough dice, he will fail armor saves. Use templates! 

The fool sayeth, “I hath mastered my book, and am ready for battle.”
The wise man sayeth, “Learn to play by playing.”

Experiment with different types of armies. Take an all-shooty army, and see how it does, and notice which units perform well. Take an all-assault army. Notice what happens and which units carry their weight. Take a speed army. See what comes together and what goes awry. After you get over “the dice did it again,” honestly evaluate the performance of each of your units. Then, when you combine fast units with shooty units with assaulty units into a “well balanced army,” you will not only know what to expect of these units, but how to use them effectively as well.

Stan vs. Ken Lacey
Ken Lacy (sitting) takes on Stan Reed (standing)

Editor's note: The Warmonger Club is home to Ken Lacy, aka "The Fabulous Orcboy," who summarizes his battles in his column, Da Orcboy's Scorecard. Ken has a reputation for not just defeating but annihilating his opponents. Below, he recounts his experiences playing 40K.

Ken Lacy. Sorry, ladies, he's unavailable."Well, I've been playing 40K on-and-off since about 1990, perhaps a bit earlier. My memory gets hazy.... I played Fantasy at least a year earlier.

"I played mostly Marines through college, starting with the Rogue Trader rules, then the Battle Book addendum and changes, and switched to full-time to Imperial Guard with the release of the 2nd Edition. I'd had enough of Marines by that time. I never had the money, the ability to readily transport, or the desire to collect lots of tanks, so my Guard were infantry heavy, even in 2nd Edition when vehicles were God. I won at least one tournament in Hawaii while in Grad school with my all-infantry Shooty Imperial Guard Army From Hell, and another when I moved to New York City.

"I've since tried out Marines again (my Ad-Hoc Crusade) as well as various Eldar armies--I had some minis back in 2nd Edition but rarely used them--but my two most characterful are Farseer Bob and his Marvelous Reapers (Biel-Tan) and my Clan Starfire Exodites (Saim-Hann). I also had the wild and crazy idea for a Rebel Grot army, based around the core of a vastly underutilized Gorkamorka Grot Mob, which has graced Borderlands twice and been my driving passion for the past two years or so.

"Now I'm working on four armies at once (not recommended!) because of a surfeit of ideas: Swingin' Sixties Sisters (Sisters of Battle), the Ripper Swarm army (Tyranids), a Slann Expeditionary Force (Tau), and the top-secret Alpha Legion army (Chaos).

"I've always tended to favor shooty, shooty, shooty armies, partly because of when I got into the game (back in the good old days of Overwatch), but also because most of my opponents back in my college days were crazed Chaos combat-monsters that I had difficulties beating with Marines and no hope of beating with Guard. Not in hand-to-hand combat, anyway. I've weathered the 3rd Edition and its 'assault-happy' rules with some equinamity--although I still hold that in a no-holds-barred match, shooty armies win over assaulty ones...particularly if they start 36" or more apart--and look forward to 4th Edition and its re-emphasis on shooting.

"In the last year, I've placed in the top four or five at Rogue Trader Tournaments fairly regularly, with Exodites and Rebel Grots and even Farseer Bob. I've also won two tournaments, one GW store tournament (with Farseer Bob) and one RTT (with my Exodites). I don't mind winning, but the competition at my local club, what with composition and painting and psychoanalysis of what makes a 'great' sportsman, has led me to de-emphasizing winning tournaments, and simply emphasize what I enjoy--winning individual games and having a good time (which tends to involve my opponent also having a good time). It's a formula that has placed me fairly well in tournaments, and given me a bit of a rep down in Borderlands." 

Army selection by Ken Lacy
Disclaimer: If you want a detailed approach to army design in Warhammer 40K, then you should link to the following site, ASAP:

http://www.geocities.com/newpaintbrush/

The Strategy and Tactics articles are interesting, but it is the very lengthy essay on Army Selection (and the accompanying breakdown of the various "themes" that an army can, and should, include) that I'm going to particularly recommend. The detail that the author goes into is quite comprehensive. If you read nothing else on his excellent website, you should read that particular article on Army Selection.

If you read (or have already read) Newpaintbrush's article, then you will notice that almost any army-building advice one could give would overlap with the advice that he gives. Thus, I will be spending the remainder of my time discussing other, less specific elements of army design. From my perspective, these are just as important as making sure that you have all the tactically important elements of a fighting force in your own list--just as important for playing, and winning, wargames.  On that rather optimistic note, I begin.

Context is Everything. Nothing exists in a vacuum (well, unless you play lots of Battlefleet Gothic).  Every army list you design should also take into account several important factors, factors that great military thinkers since Sun Tzu have stressed repeatedly. 

First, know your opponent. You will always do better when your army is designed to defeat the opponent you play. You will do even better if you design your army to defeat your opponent's most probable army design. 

Example: If your opponents always field many units of Marines with close-combat weapons in Rhino transports, you will need a means to counteract his design strengths (mobility, armored protection) with elements in your own list (for example, anti-APC weapons like autocannon (low cost, high strength, high rate of fire), or cheap screening elements (Cultists or Gaunts) for your core forces.
Second, know your environment. You should know better than anyone the sorts of terrain that your regular gaming group favors -- design your armies to take advantage of such terrain.
Examples: A "shooty" army design will do much better in open terrain, and comparatively poorer in cluttered terrain. Armies relying heavily on transports will do poorly in very dense terrain, but work best in relatively open terrain with pieces sizable enough to hide vehicles from enemy fire. Some swarm armies (Catachans, Tyranids), on the other hand, have a substantial edge over their opponents in very dense terrain that severely limits LOS. 
Finally, strive for balance! If you design your army to specialize in several very narrow "themes," it may be quite successful when in its element, but will be very easy to beat outside its element. This will be particularly true if you are playing in an unfamiliar format or against an unfamiliar opponent-- but will also be true if your opponent simply brings an army (list) that you weren't expecting to face.  So, make sure your army has at least a few units in it that give it enough versatility to face opponents and situations you weren't expecting!
Example: Your gaming group usually plays on fairly open tables, and your Space Marines are geared up to kill lots of big Monstrous Creatures with 2+ saving throws--lots of small squads with lascannons and plasma guns backed by Devastators. Your regular Tyranid opponent has some surprises for you, however--he's just finished building all that wooded terrain he's been promising to finish for months, and he's also decided to try out his 120-Hormaguant army. Oops.

Editor's note: For more on this subject, please see Building a Balanced Army.

Hint: If you're planning to play at a tournament against unfamiliar opponents, the "safe" course is to build an army with some mobility, a number of AP3 and AP2 weapons (and power weapons), capable of stopping most light (AV 10-12) transports, and designed to operate in sparse to moderate terrain. In other words, if you design your army to do well in fairly open tables against T4 opponents in power armor, you will do all right. Most tournament events don't feature loads of terrain, and the majority of 40K players field some sort of Marine army or other (which includes Chaos Marines, of course).

The Numbers Game. A wargame like 40K has some unusual side-effects that relate to the fact that it is, ultimately, a game. One thing directly related to army design is the Point Value system. Ideally it's a way for two opponents to field vastly different sets and numbers of units and still remain confident that their two forces are roughly equal.

Since this parity is achieved through use of absolute numeric values, this means that part of the Fine Art of Army Design is learning how to squeeze out the maximum benefit for the minimum cost. For those of you who thought that math and economics would never be useful once you graduated from school, you have my deepest sympathies....

The first step is to plan ahead. You should have a specific tactical "theme" for your army: shooty, assault-oriented, fast, etc. Your game plan should directly affect your army design. So make sure that the units you include have the ability to carry out your cunning plans--or else you're simply wasting points.

Example: You're designing an assault-oriented Eldar army that features a unit each of Banshees and Scorpions. It's a safe bet that you want to give those assault units each a Wave Serpent transport--it will guarantee that they get into the fray much quicker than if they were plodding along, getting shot at by your opponent.
Hint: If you find that you have given a unit or character some item or upgrade that they never use, that's probably something you can cut from your list--reassign the points to purchase something more useful for your army.

The second step is to get the most for your points. Most army lists charge more for certain options in certain units than in others. Sometimes that extra cost is worth it--but usually there are tactical advantages to taking the cost-effective route. And you save points (for more nastiness in your army) when you do it, too!

Example: Lascannons in Marine Devastator squads cost substantially more than the exact same Lascannons (with the exact same BS, etc.) in regular Tactical Squads. If instead of one Devastator squad with four lascannons, you instead field four Tactical squads with one lascannon each, you gain the following game benefits. 

First, you have spread out your heavy weapons, making it harder for your opponent to knock them all out in a single turn. Second, you aren't paying that much more--because you would have had to field two Troops choices anyway had you included the Devastators, and by bringing four Tactical Squads you have fulfilled that need and saved points on the individual weapons. Finally, you have increased the body count on the table, which brings me to...

The third step is to remember that there is strength in numbers. Generally speaking, the person fielding more models has an advantage over his opponent. No matter how nasty or powerful a single model is, there is a limit to the amount of damage it can do to the enemy. An army that has the numbers to simply absorb that damage and not worry overly about it is truly fearsome. 
Example: An Ork Gretchin is a rather pathetic little creature, and it shouldn't be a huge surprise that it's worth a measly 3 points. However, that means that you can field five of those little Gretchin against every one 15-point Space Marine. Points-wise, 100 Gretchin are equivalent to 20 Marines. Guess who ends up the a slight statistical edge, though? Now try that comparison using an Avatar (80 points).  Three Avatars are seriously kick-ass, but when they're up against 80 Gretchin, they suddenly don't look so nasty.
Remember, the house is always stacked in favor of greater numbers. A little bad luck isn't a problem if you have scores of miniatures in your army. That same bad luck can be crippling if you only have a handful of miniatures.

Play to your Strengths: The Comparison Game. Every army in 40K is different. This is intentional on the part of the games designers. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this difference leads to different armies having different inherent strengths and weaknesses.

So, design your army around its built-in advantages. This seems like something blatantly obvious, but it's surprising how many players overlook or ignore this advice. Very simply put, if your army book notes that you get advantages X, Y, and Z, build your army to get the most possible use out of them.

Example: The Saim-Hann Craftworld can field six Fast Attack choices, and all its jetbikes and skimmers can reroll difficult terrain tests. That means that to be getting the most out of the army list, you should be planning on fielding a large number of Fast Attack choices, bikes, and skimmers. If you field three or fewer Fast Attack choices, you might as well be fielding a standard Eldar army--at which point you should be asking yourself why you're taking the disadvantages of an army without really using any of its benefits?
Likewise, this means that it's harder to play an army list that was constructed despite the built-in drawbacks and disadvantages of the army (such as "assault" Guard or "shooty" Tyranids). This is something I'd really recommend only in three situations: (1) You're a fluff-monkey that absolutely MUST design your army in a certain way, and damn the consequences! (2) You're a masochist that really gets a thrill out of losing every single game you play. (3) You're experimenting with different or unusual lists and/or enjoy the challenge/handicap.
Example: The Blood Angels suffer from the Black Rage, which essentially means that over the course of six turns, you can expect any given unit to succumb to its effects and move forward a random distance. This means that the Blood Angels probably aren't designed to be a pure "shooty" army, because there is the distinct possibility that your heavy weapons (and in particular Devastators) will move forward and be unable to fire on the turn(s) you need them. Lesson to be learned--fire-support choices in a Blood Angels army should be capable of firing even after moving, like Dreadnoughts or Terminators, or--secondarily-- tanks like Predators.
Stick to your Guns. Once you've settled upon a general tactical "theme" for your army, taken your likely opposition and tabletop environment into account, gotten the most bang for your points, and made sure to add a few units to cover your other bases, it's time to go back and make sure you stick to your plan!

There's nothing worse than being so "versatile" that your army is no longer good at anything, or worse yet, much smaller than it could be. Don't try to kit out every model with every weapons option, just so you can be prepared for anything. Because every one of those options cost points, that will inevitably result in many expenditures that you end up never using--drastically reducing the size of your army (compared to what you could have fielded) in the process. Similarly, if you look at your army and realize that a good chunk of it (about a third, or more) doesn't fit the tactical theme of your army, you're not sticking to your plan!

Example: You realize that the two units of Ogryn in Chimeras that you included in your Imperial Guard army as a "counterassault" element eat over five hundred points of your 1500 point army list! You've just sunk 33% of your points into two units you only intend to use against opponents that get through your (not so withering as a result) firepower. Time to scrap one of those units and use it to get more Big Guns!
The Human Element. Finally, remember that every player has his or her own style of play, and general advice that applies perfectly for everyone is something that you can never entirely capture in any single article. What works for one person might not necessarily work for another person. While there may be certain things any player can do to streamline and optimize his army, and while certain things will never work, no matter who you are (Chaos Cultists with only hand weapons, for example, will never ever be able to stop a Land Raider), in the final analysis the most important rule of all in army design is to Know Thyself.

This has two important sub-elements. First, you should keep it fun. That means that ultimately you should design army lists that you enjoy using. Some people, for example, never enjoy playing a "shooty" themed army, so will design "assault" lists even for armies that aren't best designed for that role (Imperial Guard, for example). Others enjoy the look or style of particular units, or particular combinations of units--even if they aren't very effective or don't work well with each other. And some players simply value other aspects of the 40K hobby more than winning games. Know what works for you. And stick with it.

Example: You really, really like Space Marine Scout Bikers. They look cool, you have a great background concept for them, and you have enough models to field a lot of them. But you don't want to use the White Scars rules, because you also love Dreadnoughts. Sure, these may not be the best units in the world to design an effective battle force around, but who cares? You're more interested in style anyway.
Of course, wargaming is also a social event that involves lots of interaction with other people. That means that what's fun for you needs also to be tempered with some small modicum of consideration for others--in other words, keep it real. Eventually you will find an optimum combination of personal style, army, theme, and design that works particularly well for you. Sometimes, however, that combination may not be all that enjoyable for your opponents to face....
Example: You have designed the ultimate Biel-Tan Dark Reaper army. It features 20 Dark Reapers, and has slaughtered pretty much every Space Marine army in your local gaming group time and again. Your friends aren't really all that enthusiastic about playing games in which their entire army is wiped out before it can do much of anything to yours. Maybe it's time to start working on another army list?
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© Copyright Stan Reed and Ken Lacy (respectively), August 2002. Used with permission.
 

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