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Guest Commentary: Da Orcboy Pays Up
Rating the 40K Army Lists: Orks, Chaos, and Marines (Ninth of 11 articles)by Ken Lacy
Editor's Note: As a public service to his fellow gamers, Ken is analyzing each Warhammer 40K army on a number of factors and rating them (in a manner similar to Consumer Reports). Visit this page to read what criteria Ken uses.
The Hordes of the Waaaaugh: Orks
First, the initial expense of an Ork army is quite high, in large part due to the huge number of models that are called for, the limited selections in plastics, the large number of low-point-value vehicles, etc. Basic Ork hordes, due to the readily available plastics in both 40K and Fantasy (and other companies’) ranges, are relatively easy to put together, but anything else starts to add up, even considering how easy it can be to ‘kitbash’ for Orks, and customize unique one-of-a-kind vehicles and weapons.
Orks are also very large armies, full of large, bulky models carrying oversized guns with muzzles that stretch a country mile. Their blocky ‘junkmobiles’ come in every shape and size, but rarely is that shape ‘streamlined’ and that size ‘small’. Almost no Ork army fits neatly into carrying cases, or even into several carrying cases.
Fortunately, there is an upside to all this. The fact that Ork models feature loads of ‘fiddly bits’ is balanced by the fact that there are really very few ‘wrong’ ways to assemble them. What’s more, they are some of the easier models in the 40K line to paint, and there is almost no way to paint them ‘wrong’, either. The mass of potential detail may slow down the process, but virtually any palette choice and color design will work just fine for Orks.
Orks are also incredibly customizable -- not only is there a vast archive of ollder bits and models, but the Ork predilection toward Lootin’ defeated opponents means that pretty much any and every model you can think of can be made an Orky vehicle, weapon, and/or accessory. And as one of the ‘core’ 40K armies, the basic Ork line is pretty well represented in hobby centers, though some of the variant lists (Snakebites, Feral Orks) feature unit types only available on-line, or which require extensive conversion.
Orks do make up for it in terms of the solid value of their core units. Between their high base Weapon Skill, their many basic attacks, and their Mob Check (and Mob Up) rules, most Ork lists are extremely reliable, and can be expected to go down fighting pretty much to the bitter end -- particularly the elite Goffs and the fearless Madboyz. Even the ‘less reliable’ army lists can be counted on to accomplish tasks and hang around most of the game. Granted, Orks are not terribly durable model-for-model. Toughness 4 doesn’t mean a whole lot in the 40K universe when you wear tinfoil and blue warpaint for armor. There are just too many gruesome and high-strength ways of getting killed. But with their sheer numbers, most Ork lists can suck up a few punches on their way to dishing some out. Only Speed Freeks, who rely so heavily on their fragile vehicles, receive a “poor” rating in terms of durability.
On the whole, most Ork lists are really pretty easy to use, with a minimum of special rules -- beyond the important Mob and Waaaugh! rules, of course. That may make many Ork lists pretty predictable, but it’s also relatively newbie/casual-gamer friendly. Only Feral Orks, with all their wacky special units and wargear combinations, are markedly different from the 40K core rules.
Finally, Primary Aptitudes. Despite their fast Trukks and Bikers, most Ork lists have real difficulty mechanizing their entire force. Many of the footslogging army lists (Goffs, Blood Axes, Feral Orks) are particularly slow and unmaneuverable, and rely instead on swamping the entire board with models. Despite this, Evil Suns (rated “good”) and Speed Freeks (rated “excellent”) are very, very fast -- in fact, the ability for Speed Freeks to come a turn sooner than normal out of Reserve simply underscores their incredible mobility.
Another weakness of many Ork lists is its shooting. Several Clans (Bad Moon, Death Skulls, Speed Freeks, Feral Orks) can scrape together a semi-credible ‘shooty’ list, but on the whole Orks just aren’t going to make a name for themselves as expert marksmen. It’s as hand-to-hand brawlers that Orks really come into their own: lots of attacks, high Weapon Skills, high Toughness, and a Choppa. All Orks are at least rated “good” at assaults, while Goffs and Ferals (and even basic Orks), with access to loads of high-strength (Strength 4+) close-combat attacks, truly excel at the business of close combat.
When it comes to the “Tactical” rating, though, Orks are pretty mediocre, covering the range from “poor” (Speed Freeks and most of the Clan variants) to just barely “average” (Bad Moons, Goffs, and basic Orks). They simply don’t have enough strengths to make up for their major weaknesses: a very limited number of effective army designs, a lack of mobility and shootiness, and a lack of real points-effective variety in terms of units and wargear. As a result, all the best Ork armies end up looking very similar -- and it doesn’t take opponents long to learn how to handle them.
One Ork list, however, seems to possess just enough variety, insanity, and special rules and ‘killer’ units to make up for straightforward Ork tactics and striking Ork weaknesses: Feral Orks.
Ultimately, the Orks are currently the weakest of the existing 40K army lists, and well overdue for an overhaul and revision, comparable to the overhaul (and improvement) that both the Tau and Eldar have recently (in 2006) undergone.
The Legions of the Damned: Chaos
In practical terms, however, the Witch-Hunter Traitor list is an ‘add-on’ to another (which is to say, basically ANY other) 40K army list, so apart from a few extra unit choices, doesn’t have much of an impact otherwise. Think of them as a fluffy way to field any army list as a thematically Chaos list. As a result, I won’t give the Witch-hunter Traitor list a rating of their own, as they’re not really a stand-alone list, but more like a small list of “allied” options that every 40K list can field.
(They’re also ‘opponent-permission only’ and not tournament legal, but that’s just more reason to only mention them briefly and then move on)
The remaining ten (10) lists feature a variety of different play styles, strengths, weaknesses, and the like. One of them is also, in my opinion, the nastiest, cheesiest, crackiest, most munchkin-friendly army list in the 40K game to date. Read on to see which one I’m talking about!
As every Chaos Space Marine (CSM) list is essentially a variation of the core CSM design, they are all very well-supported, and it’s very easy to find the models for the lists available. When it comes to the demon-heavy lists, like Wordbearers and the four Chaos Power-aligned lists, it may be a bit trickier to find all the miniatures you want at one go, but on the whole access to models is still “good”. The only real exception is with the Lost & the Damned, but most of its unit selections are still available as parts of other model lines.
When it comes to compactness and portability, the CSM lists all have similar problems. First, the backpacks, which are uniformly bulkier than loyalist Marine backpacks. They’re just one example of the ornateness of CSMs, which often contributes to making them quite bulky miniatures. Second, the Defiler -- a ridiculously bulky model that is difficult to easily transport, and it (and other similarly ornate and bulky Chaos vehicles) are available in virtually every Chaos list. Finally, demons -- several varieties of which are also bulky, and/or delicate, especially the larger Greater Demons and Princes. As a result, despite their relatively elite status and small army sizes, the CSM lists are all “average” at best in terms of portability, with the possible exception of the infantry-heavy, low-vehicle-count Night Lords lists. The Lost & the Damned, at the other extreme, are a massive horde list filled the bulky (and sometimes fragile) models of every kind, and thus rate extremely poorly in this regard.
Despite their ornateness, CSM are relatively easy to paint: some drybrushing and some detail work and you’re done! Only the presence of a high number of elite unit types (= even more ornate) and/or demons, makes painting trickier, and even then, not so much. CSM lists range from “average” to “good” on this scale. And the Lost & the Damned? They’re supposed to be a chaotic hodgepodge of color and design, anyway! Cohesive color schemes be damned! Painting this motley crew is ‘only’ time-consuming, and otherwise as simple (or as hard) as you wish to make or model it.
The ornate complexity of the Chaos lists also affects their Ease-of-Assembly. Many of the same things that make these armies bulky (Defilers, ornate vehicle bitz, Demons), as well as fiddly elite units like Obliterators and Raptors, keep the Chaos lists from being easily assembled. Several lists are even below average in this regard, usually because they feature a preponderance of one or more of the items listed previously: Iron Warriors, for example, can field loads of vehicles and Obliterators. And of course, Lost & the Damned, which can field all the above AND a horde of wildly varying infantry models as well.
Finally, Customizability. Chaos has a huge archive of bits available for modelers, and seems designed for rabid conversion-lovers. Unfortunately, a good amount of that is NOT due to the ease with which models are converted, but rather to strong themes that modelers enjoy working with. Skilled modelers, by definition, could happily convert any 40K army to spec, so this is a poor criterion to judge the customizability of lists by.
Instead, look at how easily the models can be converted, and what the range of existing (plastics? pewters?) and archived (bits? miniatures?) choices are. In this light, the Chaos lists fare somewhat poorer. Several of them have many models and kits and bits to draw from, making life easier for modelers (ie, Iron Warriors, Lost & the Damned, Chaos Undivided), but many are just a bit too specialized to be easy to convert, with more limited selections of kits and bits and fewer multipiece plastics (ie, Alpha Legion, Night Lords, Khorne, Nurgle). Last, several of the lists are either largely metal miniatures, which result in low ratings in the category (Wordbearers) or have surprisingly sparse archives of bits available for conversion of units (Slaneesh, Tzeentch).
With regard to the versatility and wealth of unit options, the core Chaos Undivided list is almost unparalleled, with a huge assortment of units available to it, both Undivided and Marked. Lost & the Damned also fare very well, with a similarly huge assortment of choices. Nearly all of the other Chaos Legions, however, are pretty mediocre, with numerous unit restrictions that severely limit the variety they can field. Of the other Legions, only Wordbearers do all right, though still not comparable to the Chaos Undivided list, due to the large number of extra Troops slots they can field.
When it comes to the effective use of all that variety, Chaos Undivided again fares extremely well, capable of enormous versatility in design, and with innumerable very effective design concepts. Undivided armies rarely are identical from player to player, and the number of strategies they can effectively pursue is huge. Sadly, few other Chaos lists can even come close in this regard, one of the costs of their specialization by Legion. Wordbearers (due to their large number of versatile Troop slots) and Slannesh (with their versatile Noise Marines and fast and cheap Daemonettes) do well, but most other Chaos lists are somewhat mediocre, and several (Khorne, Tzeentch, Lost & Damned) are decidedly one-dimensional.
Being Marines, the core CSM units are exceedingly reliable. The four Chaos Power-aligned Legions are Fearless, while the remaining Legions are Ld10 (and often can reroll failed Morale tests). All CSM units are skill 4, as well, and thus can be counted on to do well in a fight. Yet again, it’s the Lost & the Damned that are the odd ones out: poor Leadership, poor WS/BS, and few options in their list to help mitigate these weaknesses. Their Core units are easily the least reliable ones in the 40K game.
Unit durability (and how ‘forgiving’ an army list is of mistakes) can be a similarly mixed bag. Two Chaos lists (Nurgle, Tzeetnch) are absurdly tough, capable of withstanding enormous punishment. Most Chaos lists are pretty solid, given the toughness and power-armor of CSMs. That said, low numbers (Khorne, Slannesh), or a limited selection of support units (Alpha Legion, Night Lords) result in a few legions being rated ‘just’ “Average”. Again, the Lost & the Damned fare worse, and that’s largely a reflection of how fragile their massive hordes truly are, and how heavily they rely on everything (and anything) else they field.
The Chaos lists vary wildly in terms how similar (or different) they are from the core 40K rules. Most have a number of special abilities, some unusual wargear, and some unique unit choices, but a few legions are less or more distinct than this. On the one hand, legions like the Iron Warriors, Khorne, and Nurgle all are extremely similar to the basic 40K rules-set, making them much easier for “n00bs” to get into, but also making them rather transparent to veteran opponents. Lost & the Damned, and Chaos Undivided, on the other hand, have so many special abilities, special units, and special wargear that few players (apart from veteran gamers who use these lists) know everything that these armies are capable of.
Finally, the Primary Aptitudes. What with Raptors, demonic summoning, demonic flight, and demonic speed, most Chaos armies are often extremely fast moving. Other Legions rate only “average” in this regard, like Alpha Legion and Tzeentch, who lack the blinding mobility of pure Chaos Undivided, but still are extremely maneuverable on the battlefield. Two Chaos lists are fairly static by comparison, though still capable of maneuver and demon summoning -- Iron Warriors and Lost & the Damned rate “poor” in this measure.
Chaos is generally considered an assault-oriented set of army lists, but several Chaos lists can do ‘shooty’ quite well, too. Chaos Undivided and Slannesh can put out a prodigious amount of firepower, while Iron Warriors are arguably one of the shootiest lists in 40K. The remaining Chaos lists are either ‘merely’ Average, or in some cases come with unit restrictions that mean they do a poor job in the shooting phase: Khorne, Nurgle, and Tzeentch, for example, all have a decided lack of ranged firepower options.
It is in assault that many Chaos armies excel, and even the worst of them are, by most standards, pretty reasonable close-combat threats. Chaos Undivided, Nightlords, Wordbearers and Slannesh are all extremely good at this aspect of the game, and Khorne very much lives up to its reputation as one of the most fearsome close-combat armies in 40K. The sole Chaos list that rates poorly is not, surprisingly, the Lost & the Damned, but rather Tzeentch -- the incredibly durable Thousand Sons units are unable to do more than act as ‘tar pits’ that bog down enemies while their (very few) real close-combat threats race frantically from place to place to “handle” things.
The one list that does particularly badly, however, is Lost & the Damned. It is not only a poor choice for “n00bs”, but astoundingly so. It is a serious modeling challenge, which already makes it suboptimal for new/casual players, but it also comes with a host of strange rules and units, and an array of weaknesses on the tabletop as well. Definitely NOT recommended for a new/casual gamer!
In terms of the “Tactical” tabletop rating, in the hands of a veteran gamer, the Chaos lists rank a little differently. Five legions are merely mediocre (Alpha Legion, Iron Warriors, Night Lords, Khorne, Tzeentch), moderately handicapped by one or another inherent weakness. Two rank as solidly “good” lists (Nurgle and Slannesh), with fewer weaknesses, greater flexibility, and numerous strengths as compared to their brother legions. And two rank among the best ‘tactical’ lists in 40K: Wordbearers (highly flexible and potentially hard-harding) and Chaos Undivided.
In fact, Chaos Undivided is probably the crackiest, nastiest, hardest, meanest, most munchkin-friendly army list in 40K: loads of options, tons of nasty tricks, and no real weaknesses (or even mediocrities) to speak of whatsoever.
And yet again, the Lost & the Damned come trailing in behind all the other Chaos lists. Although not one of the worst army lists in 40K, they certainly will be a real challenge to play, even for a crafty veteran player, and thus rate as “poor” overall. But even they have their strengths, and so despite clearly being the weakest of the Chaos lists, are still far from being among the worst of the 40K army lists.
The Guardians of Mankind: Loyalist Marines
In terms of raw affordability, there’s a wide variation depending on the composition of the list. 13th Company and Ravenwing rate “poorly” because they require expensive pewter or plastic kits in some quantity, as do some of the Index Astartes lists (White Scars, for example). Black Templar and Dark Angel, on the other hand, come in wide ranges of plastics and are relatively affordable. Yet when it comes to cost, basic Marines are king of the crop -- there are so may low-cost Marine miniatures options, from the “Battle for Macragge” intro set to the basic infantry boxes, that it’s really very easy to put together a Marine army for very little money. In fact, many Loyalist chapters can save a little money by using as many low-cost basic Marine figures as possible where they can.
As it is one of their main miniature lines, Games Workshop supports Marines very strongly, making accessibility and availability of issues a problem only for “weird” lists like the 13th Company, or some of the Index Astartes and Cursed Founding lists. Some of these require either unusual or archived miniatures, or a little conversion work.
Loyalist lists are all fairly portable, though there’s some variation here. Deathwing, particularly all-infantry Deathwing, are extremely compact and fit easily into a small carrying case, while at the other end of the scale, the speeder and bike-heavy Ravenwing are quite bulky and a bit fragile, requiring careful packing and transport. The Space Wolves and Blood Angels, which have a heavy need for transport units, or Dark Angels, which favor bikes and speeders, also take up some space and thus rate as ‘merely’ Average. On the whole, however, Marine armies are extremely compact, what with their boxy vehicles, squared-off miniatures sporting relatively little ornate or bulky or fragile detail, etc.
All those straight-forward flat plates and hard edges also make Marines ridiculously easy to paint. In fact, Ultramarines (blue + ink/highlight), Black Templars (black + highlight) and Blood Angels (red + ink/highlight) are some of the easiest and most foolproof paint schemes in the game. Even other Loyalist chapters are very straightforward, and only vehicle-heavy lists (like Ravenwing) or the more detailed and ornate models of the 13th Company, have anything less than a “good” rating in terms of paintability.
Loyalist Marine lists are also very easy to assemble. Only models like the Landspeeder really cause much of a headache (thus Ravenwing get an “average” rating), while the serviceable ‘snap-together’ Marines from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition boxed sets are so simple to assemble that little else in the 40K hobby comes close. The “weird” variant lists usually require a bit more work, however, and/or call for the conversion of metal miniatures or bits, so received a poorer (but still “average”) rating. On the whole, then, Marines are quite easy to assemble.
Finally, the Loyalist Marines have access to a prodigiously large archive of bits, and with their large armored plates and clean lines are really very easy to convert. Basic “vanilla” Marines have a vast pool of available bits and kits, past and present, and even the other chapters (and the ‘oddball’ lists) have a wide range of pieces from the basic Marine archive to draw from. Only the Ravenwing, who are comprised solely of bikes and Landspeeders, are a bit more limited in their conversion choices, but they still have all-plastic core models to work with.
As to how well each list can take advantage of its various options to field effective, tourney-winning lists, there’s again some variation. Several Loyalist lists (Ravenwing, Deathwing, 13th Company) really have only one or two broad tactical concepts that work for them. The Space Wolves, too, face some severe handicaps that really minimize the amount of creativity that they can hope to effectively pull off. That said, the other Loyalists are extremely versatile, “vanilla” Marines particularly so with their doctrines. Furthermore, the ability for virtually all Marine lists to take drop-pods, which give them a real extra edge in terms of army design and tactical play, mean that Marines tend to rate “good” or better across the board.
Loyalist Marines also are all highly skilled (WS/BS 4, or better) and come with good to excellent Leadership. They all benefit from the “And They Shall Know No Fear” special ability, too, making Loyalists of any kind the most reliable units in the 40K game.
With their 3+ power armor save, ATSKNF special rule, and Toughness 4, most Marines are quite durable, too -- and their durability and relative numbers mean army lists that are very forgiving. The few Loyalist Marine lists that don’t measure up either have expensive units, fragile units, and/or small unit sizes and army sizes to contend with, such as the Deathwing, Ravenwing, and 13th Company. On the other hand, the Sons of Anteus Cursed Founding Marines are basically “vanilla” marines with one added benefit: Toughness 5. That makes this Cursed Founding lists one of the most durable in the 40K game.
Finally, Marines are not only very close to the core rules, but they more than any other army list embody the core 40K rules. Yes, all Marines have special options and the like, but they are the baseline and standard in 40K -- which can be both a blessing (for newer players looking to get into the game) and a curse (for veterans unhappy with how ‘predictable’ and transparent most of their army’s tactics are).
Primary Aptitudes: between drop-pods and jumppacks and Landspeeders and bikes, and full mechanization as a viable army option, most of the Loyalist lists rate as “good” in terms of overall maneuverability and mobility. One of the “Cursed Founding” lists (Legion of the Damned) can even (essentially) ‘infiltrate’ their entire army list to start the game! Even the 13th Company, who can’t take advantage of drop-pods, can still teleport, make scout moves, and have units with the Fleet-of-Foot ability. The only three Loyalist lists with a different rating all have some notable variation in their unit selection. Deathwing (“poor”) can teleport and drop-pod, and can move-and-fire all their weapons, but have no jump-packs and no speedy support units at all. Space Wolves (“average”) lack jump-pack troops in real numbers, and Ravenwing (“excellent”) are all bikes and fast-skimmers, and one of the speediest army lists in the game.
Marine lists can also be quite shooty, but not all Loyalist lists are made alike. Black Templars and Blood Angels (“average”), for example, are thematically assault lists. They CAN be designed as shooty armies, but that’s not their strength. Space Wolves and 13th Company (“poor”), on the other hand, can’t really even do that -- in terms of both unit options and army design, and in terms of list strengths, they’re better off by far focusing on assaults. Deathwing (“average”) are an unusual case in that they’re really better off as a ‘shooty’ list, but simply lack the weaponry and firepower (due to their small numbers) to win in a straight-up firefight.
Finally, assaults -- and given their basic stats, all Marines are inherently decent at that. Some lists, like the Templars, Blood Angels, and 13th Company, are some of the premiere assault armies in 40K. Others, like Deathwing and Ravenwing, rate quite a bit lower due to low model count or a lack of real assault capability. But that said, every Loyalist Marine list can handle itself in a melee, and no list rates worse than “average”.
Space Wolves and the Index Astartes variants are all solid second-tier choices, and even ‘oddball’ lists like Deathwing, Ravenwing, and 13th Company are no worse than “average” for new and casual players.
For the veteran “Tactical” gamer, the hierarchy is very similar: ‘vanilla’ Marines, Black Templars, Blood and Dark Angels, Cursed Foundings, and Index Astartes lists are all “good” or “excellent”, with few (or no) disadvantages to speak of. Space Wolves and the 13th Company are one step down (“average”) but still very solid lists, albeit with some weaknesses. However, Ravenwing (“poor”) and Deathwing (“worst”) are exceptionally finicky, fragile, hard-to-play armies.
In all, then, Loyalist lists make up some of the best, nastiest, hardest, crackiest lists in 40K. They’re also simultaneously (along with one non-Loyalist army list -- Chaos Undivided) the easiest and friendliest armies in 40K for new/casual gamers to get into. Small wonder that so many gamers play Loyalist marines of some type or other in the 40K hobby.
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