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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Able Was I, Ere I Saw Elba

This article was sitting in my drafts section, almost fully-formed, when I stumbled upon it.  I wrote the last two sections today, briefly, but the lion's share of the work was done, and it's a terrible shame I didn't post it back when it was relevant.  I can't even remember the linked articles, and haven't revisited them as it seems a lot less relevant now.  Just though I should finally publish it, since this may actually be one of my better articles, despite almost never seeing the light of day.  Enjoy, and please remember it's about 5th Edition.

So, I recently posted a reply in a Comment thread on YTTH (here) listing a bunch of further reading as to why the game is so inherently competitive at points level of below 1500.

Obviously, when I say this, I'm referring to playing at 1k, primarily.  I know that occasionally some people try to play below that, I've seen "Rate my 750 point list!" on forums too many times to be ignorant of the phenomenon, but frankly, you aren't even playing 40k at that level.  You aren't.

Warhammer 40,000 is not a Skirmish game any more.  it's progressed to more of a mid-level engagement thing, with Apocalypse trying to push the boundaries and take it to the kind of scale GW used to be content to represent with the Space Marine/Titan Legions/Epic 40,000/Epic Armageddon games.

When you attempt to turn 40k back into a skirmish game, it simply doesn't function correctly - and I know some people, such as Frontline Gamer, are critical of the way this has meant that 40k has developed into something of a hybrid, a game that aspires to reflect sizable conflict whilst retaining many of the skirmish elements that are the legacy of Rogue Trader... I'm not interested in whether or not the game would be improved by dropping this approach, or simply rewriting it from the ground up  - not at this juncture, anyhow.

Within my comment, I listed a whole pile of factors, listed again below for convenience.

The Force Organisation Chart;
The Missions;
The Kill Points system as opposed to Victory Points;
The Space Marine Codex;
The Tyranid Codex;
The Grey Knight Codex;
The Vehicle Damage Chart;
The Daemons/Eldar/Tau/Chaos Space Marine Codexes.

Obviously, this tapioca pudding could become unbearably long if I were to do more than touch on all the topics, so I feel it best to simply roll the Codexes together into one big grey lumpy ball.  Why grey?  Well, because we're thinking about it.  Grey matter belongs in the brain.  *Shrug*.  It was funnier in my head.

To those wondering, yes, this post is indeed a direct response to Exigency's request for extrapolation, that and it gave me something to do today other than keep reading Marc Spector: Moon Knight comics from the early 90's.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but I'd been doing so for hours, fancied a change.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

The Vehicle Damage Chart. 

The first one I choose to address is the simplest.   I read a good article the other day that mentions, for those who still just don't get it, how this almost functions as an 'extra save' for vehicles, in the case of, say, a Rhino on an Objective and with a Scoring unit inside, it roughly equates to slapping a Storm Shield on the hull.  "How so?!!?" you (probably don't) ask?  Well, if already in place that it no longer requires mobility (and unlikely as it may be, Rhinos can regain this anyway) and is hardly going to be overly concerned by the loss of its weaponry.  Shaking and Stunning have an effect, assuming some sort of worthwhile ranged weapon is poking out the Top Hatch - but if the situation is dire enough you can always disembark, and if not... Well, then you hardly miss the option, do you?  So with 4/6 potential Damage Results (on an AP2-6 Penetrating Hit) virtually ignored, that's like having a 3+ save, that isn't affected by AP value of the enemy weapon, or by Cover Ignoring (and of course, you can easily enough obtain Cover for most vehicles too...) weapons - meaning it thereby equates, after a fashion, to having a 3+ Invulnerable  under most circumstances.  Obviously this is improved against Glancing Hits, and worse against AP1 weapons, while again being marginally better against Tesla and similar AP- things.

Why does this matter more at lower points levels?

Well, quite simply, because you have fewer opportunities to kill vehicles with relative assurance.  If you fire, for instance, the much-vaunted Long Fangs at a Rhino, it works like this:
2/3 of missiles hit;
1/2 of hits penetrate;
1/3 of penetrates get a 'kill' result.

A statistically insignificant chance also exists of killing with sufficient Glances and compound damage, but it's enough to understand that a single barrage of 9 Missiles is the theoretical number required to destroy a Rhino WITHOUT a Cover Save.

While a Missile Launcher may cost fewer points than a Rhino (most of the time...) the cost of taking the meatsacks around it allowing it to fire in the face of anti-infantry fire directed its way typically puts the cost up.  In circumstances where points feel even more at a premium, it is inherently apparent that the number of anti-tank guns in your force will therefore fall faster than the number of 'light' vehicles that can be fielded against you.

When it come to the more reliable weapons for generating vehicle kills [Meltaguns, Fusion Blasters, Multi-Meltas, Railguns, Fusion Guns, Heat Lances etc etc] the cost tends to be even higher again.

Affording these, isn't the problem all by itself, however.

Even if you can manage to crowbar enough AP1 weaponry into your list that you feel comfortable dealing with Mech at 1k, you run a very serious risk of selling yourself short.  In a 'normal' size of game, running a large, of not necessarily maximised, number of these is in no way a detriment, as you can easily muster enough anti-infantry firepower [especially with the last couple of Codexes!] to deal with any threat relatively easily - creating an internally and externally balanced list.

When the points cost of such valuable additions is greater proportionally, you run the risk of failing to balance your list sufficiently... And in fact, some armies aren't truly able to do this - most notably those that struggle even at larger points values [*ahem* Chaos] to do so.  Selling yourself short in this fashion makes the weak lists weaker, while the lists that can deal with it, gain yet another advantage, leading us on to...

Codex Limitations

This pretty much just runs on from the above... If playing one of the older books, your options are already limited, to the point where several are basically mono-build books by now.  Reducing the points cost, despite what some may assume, doesn't really make more units and options viable than before.  Sure, some things become proportionally better, due to the volume of damage they can inflict/withstand being more than some (unbalanced) forces can deal with at this points level [Blood Talons are a prime example] but as a general rule, things that are good remain so at any points level, and things that are terribad [Flash Gitz, anyone??!] remain so, if not becoming even worse. :(

In direct contrast, the Codexes actually written for and within this edition of the game [SM, IG, SW, BA, DE, GK {Nids never count...} ] are easily able to squeeze in one or two units that can be fully dedicated to enemy tank removal - and still cheap.

Even with this, it's untrue to say that these Codexes can easily create balanced lists at this level, and even where they can (Space Wolves, for instance, could fill the FoC for less than 800 points if they chose, and that gives them enough room to make it decent) they rarely have variety or depth in army selection.  If everyone is forced to play the exact same 3 or 4 armies to have a true all-comers list, then not only is that fundamentally a huge imbalance - but it means that any players ballsy enough to take an unbalanced list specifically created to obliterate the Marine variants inevitably top of the tree will all-but auto-win.  A Competitive system CAN have auto-lose match-ups, but never an auto-win against a competitive force.

The Missions

While Annihilation can clearly function at any points level or table size equally (and many would claim it simply doesn't function well anyway) Capture and Control and Seize Ground especially are much less clear cut.

While a significant number of, if not most, armies will never try to claim all 5 potential objectives in SG, when you simply can't afford to have enough Scoring to claim them all anyway, this becomes academic, and artificially shifts the game from one where killing the foe is good but not vital to victory, into one with bottlenecks and flashpoints where conflict is inevitable.  This benefits certain armies who can continually/repeatedly pour troops into such situations, or for whom the Troops are good enough they weather the storm somewhat and come out on top - but some, say Eldar, have crap expensive Troops and rely on staying out of such engagements to win - this is made MUCH more difficult by lower points value games, even though the enemy theoretically has less to avoid.

Playing on smaller tables is also common with reduced points values - this amplifies the problem for fragile, mobile armies - while playing on the 6x4 that is common gives them a massive possible leg up, depending on objective placement.  Note also that it's a LOT more difficult to place all the objectives you are supposed to on smaller boards.

The Force Organisation Chart

The FoC is designed in such a way that, in theory, it prevents players taking unbalanced lists, forces some twisted ideal of 'fluffy' into listbuilding, and only truly serves to restrict players at higher points levels.

The reality is that it benefits some armies much, MUCH more than others.

At small points levels, however, it acts in reverse, doing the same job, after a fashion.

Some armies RELY on their non-Troops to pull all the weight in the list.  Tau and Eldar are great examples of this.  Without sufficient points, and forced to take the mandatory selections, these armies (and they aren't alone in this) swiftly run out of greater variety of options, and may be forced to select sub-par choices to fill space, while ruing the lack of Fire Dragons/Battlesuits/whatever.  Being forced to take a minimum of 2 Troops only helps armies with good Troops choices.  In 5e, this is, essentially - Marines and Guard.

Kill Points as Opposed to Victory Points

Warhammer Fantasy Battle has Victory Points.  What happens there is a gross system of VP Denial - people putting all of their metaphorical eggs into the same basket, making it immune to spells, and hurling it at things in the hope that it kills enough to justify it's own existence, and outscore those of its support eleements that get squished.

While the KP system doesn't prevent this entirely, it acts in some major way to restrict it, and make it less of a snooze-fest as the game swiftly dissolves into 'can I kill the deathstar before it blows up Alderaan' - a game which is inherently unfun for both players, unless both are playing deathstars to hurl at each other in a bumper cars kind of mad fun where you both accept it's a shitfest.

At lower points levels, however, spending massive amounts of points on one unit can indeed create this exact situation.  For example, a unit of 8 Paladins, Draigo, and a unit of 1 Paladin.  You have a grand total of 3 KPs to surrender for your thousand points, and only need to claim 2 99% of the time to win.  Hardly worth deploying for, that game would be awful.


Since this article almost died on the vine, and only got this reprieve as it was (in my humble opinion) pretty good, I have no conclusion for you.  This article is about 5th, and as such significant bits of it are outdated.  The theory is still sound however, and if you're still playing 5th this may well be useful to you.

After the new Chaos Space Marine Codex, I may try to find time into updating this article for 6th.

Overall, I don't think 6th at small points levels will be any less unbalanced - in fact, I think it will be worse, as it is at larger sizes.  But we can explain that in an upcoming 99 Problems post concerning direction.
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