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The Tiger Roars
Guest Commentary: Da Orcboy Pays Up

The Most Important Rule of Wargaming Strategy  (Second of 11 articles)  by Ken Lacy

When it comes to winning games of 40K, what are the Most Important Rules you need to know? 
1. Be flexible. Be able to handle a variety of different threats and terrains.
2. Be efficient. Practice cost-efficiency in army list design to maximize points.
3. Be practiced. Playtest your army so you know what tactics work and what don’t.
4. Be prepared. Know thy enemy (and his special rules), and what things to expect.
Now, if you read any of the different tactica and strategica available to you, you will inevitably find most or all of the above Most Important Rules repeated in one form or another. There’s no doubt at all that if you follow those rules, you will become a far better gamer and strategist. But there’s one rule that trumps all the others, and it’s one that’s not up there. That rule is the Most Important Meta-Rule of Wargaming Strategy, one that separates the grizzled veterans from the young hot-shots:
Be different.
That means don’t do the same old, same old. Present your opponent with a look and play that he’s never seen before. By being different, you make your opponent break Rule 4, by presenting him with units he doesn’t see very often, and thus will be unfamiliar with. You make him break Rule 3, because he won’t have had many opportunities to play against such an oddball army as yours. And you make him break Rule 1, because how can he be “flexible” when he’s not sure what he needs to do, and he’s not sure what the different threats are?

Knowledge is Power
Now it’s very easy to simply say, “Be different,” but in actual practice, it requires a fair amount of work. The reason it’s hard is because all the different armies and army lists favor certain kinds of designs. Blood Angels, for example, are favored in close-combat, and it’s easy to design a list that way. It’s a bit more challenging to do something different with them. Likewise, Imperial Guard are favored in long-range shooting matches, and it’s very easy to design lists that play to those strengths. Being different means that you’ll be doing something non-obvious with your army, and that’s going to take time, patience, and practice to figure out.

That said, there are several approaches you can take, and I’ll be providing examples of each and all of these approaches later on.

Approach A: Use Unusual or Uncommon Army Lists
This is the easiest approach to take. Just think about it: there are many Marine (and Marine variant) armies: Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Death Guard, Emperor’s Children, etc., etc. All of them play very similarly to each other, full of tough (usually T4) bodies with good armor saves (3+) and excellent leadership (Ld8 or better, and special rules). So it’s common practice for people to design their “tournament” or “take-all” army lists to beat Marines of some kind.

The trick is to take an army that isn’t run-of-the-mill and everyday. There are some sub-lists that fit these criteria, like Deathwing, for example. Although technically they are Marines, the Deathwing are made up entirely of Terminators, a unit type that most people don’t see very often, and certainly not in decent-sized numbers. The 13th Company is another Marine list that plays very differently from other Marine armies—they might look like Marines, and take hits like Marines, but they have all kinds of goofy little tricks that make them much, much nastier in close combat.

There are even whole army lists that don’t see much use. Some are just uncommon, such as Tyranids or Dark Eldar (at least in my neck of the woods). Others are army list variants and Chapter Approved armies that are virtually unknown by most players—Saim-Hann, Feral Orks, Kroot Mercenaries, etc.

If you pick one of these lists, you’ll have an instant advantage: most people won’t know what your capabilities are, and thus will either overestimate or underestimate what you can do (both of which you can use to your advantage). The idea is to make your opponent unsure about the range of options and abilities available to your army, the tactics that work best against it, and the threats that he needs to keep an eye out for.

Approach B: Use an Obscure Special Ability, Wargear Item, or Unit Type
Sometimes this is a combo of several of these things all at once. By designing your army around something obscure and unusual, you are depriving your opponent access to his hard-won experience when gauging what your forces can do. Even if your opponent is vaguely aware of what a certain ability, item, or unit can do, it’s very likely the case that he won’t be aware of the full range of possibilities. Possibilites that you, of course, are taking advantage of and putting to very practical use.

One example of this is the Dark Eldar’s webway portal wargear item. Using one or two of these items dramatically changes the pace of the game and the tactical set-up that the Dark Eldar will be using, and very few players have had the opportunity to see a webway portal army in action. By creating an army designed to take advantage of the special abilities of this item, and practicing with it regularly, you will have a decided edge on your opponent when you play.

A nasty surprise
You never know what might come out of a webway portal....

Approach C: Change Your Tactics
Approaches A and B are simply a starting point, however. If you use an odd army list and odd units/wargear to do something very common and recognizable on the tabletop, most opponents will simply react to your tired old tactics in the same old way. Yes, a few people may be startled by the different units and different models on display, but don’t count on this happening very often. What you’ll have ended up doing is playing a normal, everyday army that simply looks different. In the end, despite all the petty “differences,” a Black Templar Rhino Rush army and a Blood Angels Rhino Rush army and a World Eaters Rhino Rush army all work pretty much the same way, and the same set of tactics will defeat all three.

This means that the most important component to Being Different is changing your tactics. Changing your army lists, using obscure items and units, all this will help. But ultimately, you should only do so to support your change in tactics.

In fact, by itself, this is enough. One of the most flexible and effective Marine army designs I know is the “mechanized” concept. It works extremely well because it is flexible enough to shoot, assault, move, or hold ground depending on what the player wants to do with them. But it uses the basic Marine list, and nothing but Marines, Rhinos, Razorbacks, Predators, and a few cheap characters and Land Speeders. There’s nothing unusual or special about the army lists or the pieces being used—its strength is in the tactical design of the army list, how those different pieces are used in combination for the greater whole.

In general, though, I’ll admit that it's a lot more fun to use unusual lists and gear than not.  Plus, using them does give you that additional advantage against opponents who don’t know exactly what they’re facing.

Practice Makes Perfect
A final word. Being different has a cost: you have to be willing to experiment, willing to lose games (sometimes lots and lots of games), and willing to stick to an idea long enough to test it thoroughly. You also need to be willing to drop the idea if it doesn’t work and go with something different. Finally, you have to be open to the idea of using different tactics, because in the end that’s what makes this whole exercise successful. You must be willing to use the tactics required to implement your different idea well.

The next three articles I present will be have examples of armies that took months to playtest, redesign, tweak, and “perfect.” For all of them, it continues to be an on-going process (though to be quite honest, that process is extremely glacial at this point, because all three have basically been retired).

But above all, you have to have the desire to Be Different.

Good luck!

Next page: Being Different, Example 1 (Orcboy's Alpha Legion)
 

Related Pages
 
 
Posted  July 2004. Used with permission.
 

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Fighting Tigers:
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Other Pages:
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Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle