Thursday, July 22, 2010

The "Three Levels" of 40k Game Play ... Getting Out of the Probability Kiddie Pool

OK, so a rare moment of 40k tactics discussion. Though, it gets a little rambly (my style, I suppose).

Most people play 40k at a rudimentary level. I'd like to see more people escalate their game ... and see the game for what it really is - largely NOT luck-based (or, it doesn't have to be), and relatively balanced across most codices as a result.

My buddy Z and I played a game last night ... he has an excellent Ork list, and I had a wolf list I just threw together and had never played before (proxytime). Despite him putting on a lot of pressure and making no target priority errors, the game ended with me down about 350 points, and him down about 1650 points. Neither of us had good or bad luck beyond norms ... in fact, at one point he made 13 of 14 cover saves on vehicles. How do you win a game like that? I'm going to avoid the battle report, b/c it's not the point at present.

In mirror matches, with both players rolling roughly equal dice, how is it possible that one person can come out with his army ready to go another whole game, and the other is gone or almost gone? It's not ... dice. It's not ... just target priority. It's certainly not list, in that case.

In any event, in chat Z made a great observation that I think holds true ... there are perhaps 3 "big" levels of player development in 40k.

1) List and Comprehension - This is the rudimentary level that you need to elevate to in order to compete ... you need to have a list that can function in a more or less all comers situation, and take on a wide variety of opponents and their lists. You don't necessarily have to optimize, but I would argue that the NEWER you are, the more MIN-MAXED / optimized your list should be. As you master the higher mechanics and become more fluent with your army, you become more and more able to make big things happen with units that are less optimal on paper.

Comprehension refers to simply understanding all the rules and their nuances. This doesn't necessarily refer to applying them in the most creative and critical ways ... only to simply understanding how all of them function so that when your opponent does something wonky and clever to you by using the rules cleverly, you aren't occupied with calling shens or being surprised or arguing ... you simply learn and elevate. You should also know each of the codices to some level.

2) Target Priority - Pretty straightforward. You need to learn to quickly assess what in your opponent's army needs to die first and why. NEVER build a list that relies on not losing something to win, by the way. Presume your opponent will correctly target prioritze and hurt you.

3) Leaving the Probability Pool - This is more than just how you see the board, but I think it's where your game starts to truly shine. Let's take the simple scenario of two guard chimeras from opposing players, each with 10 vets inside toting 3 meltaguns.

"1" represents whose turn it is, let's presume no smoke or anything else; the point here is to demo in a vacuum what a good player needs to simply be aware of / know intuitively (and it obviously starts with becoming pretty darned good at measuring distances).

WHO has the advantage in each of the two scenarios? The one with 1 10" away, and the one with 1 9" away; well, here's the dealio ...

A "perfect" move for a Chimera vs. a transport with infantry is moving 6, with its heavy flamer facing the vehicle, and having its own HATCH within 6" of the enemy vehicle for BS4 melta shots within +2d6 range. Well, word to the world - when 10" away, Chimera 1 can't pull that off, and Chimera 2 can when 9" away. Odds are odds, but that SINGLE inch dramatically changes them all for each player. In the top example, 1's BEST move is to BACK AWAY, or back sideways and try to angle side multilaser shots. If it's me playing, I'm #2 and I moved there on purpose, 10" or a little more away from #1 Chimera ... why? Well, you want to force your opponent to do one of the following:

1) Move his Chimera 6" forward, and take long range melta shots at you out of hatch. His odds to wreck or explode #2 are ~38% (and I'm fine with BS4 accuracy odds in MY favor); anything less and his chimera AND squad inside both die ... even a stun/immobilize/whatever. I'll explain how.

2) Move his Chimera 6" forward, spin it around to get his melta within 6". His odds become very high to wreck or explode #2, but he cannot follow it up with a heavy flamer. The infantry squad inside will have all of its meltaguns alive, and will be able to walk up, melta the opposing chimera down, and charge the squad inside with odds in its favor ... seriously, go ahead and do the math if you'd like.

3) Move his Chimera even a little bit forward, and take long range melta shots (he has to move 1" to be within melta range from the hatch ... at 10" away, the meltas are 13" away from the Chimera).

We're in a vacuum here, but the advantage here is with #2 at 10" away, and slightly leaning toward #1 the closer it gets ... ideally it can move 6", melta with +2d6, and then heavy flame what's inside. Magic hour.

I hope this is making sense ... some players, you gotta show 'em it in action, leave 'em scratching their head as to why with an identical army you're beating them and they're losing. The above example is scratching the surface of ways to put yourself more in the tactics pool, and less in the probability pool. I think of it like two kiddy pools ... what can I say?

Think of it like cover saves, and the choice between taking a "Deffkopta" or a "Warbuggy." Both units have their place and their cool tricks ... deffkoptas can do all sorts of crazy first turn things, right? Fine. Both can be kept covered up if you're half smart, fine. So, if my opponent is shooting at a Deffkopta, he has to roll to hit and wound, and then I have to roll a save to prevent damage. If my opponent is shooting at a Rokkit buggy, he has to roll to hit and glance/pen (and this is going to be more difficult to do for almost all weapons), and I get to roll my cover save ... and THEN he has to roll another dice to kill it. The Warbuggy puts your opponent MORE into the probability pool. The probability pool cares not whether your opponent is smart, or clever, or better than you. It's simply odds. The more times you subject him to the chance for bad luck, the better off you are. So in my ork lists, I ALWAYS use rokkit buggies ... it's not that Deffkoptas aren't good / great / whatever, but I can do good things with EITHER unit, and they both have the capacity to kill transports and such ... and the buggies take me MORE out of the probability pool, and that's a win right off the bat.

I freaking HATE the probability pool. When I first started playing Necron years ago, I learned this the hard way. I fail LD10 tests reliably. I fail WBB rolls reliably. I fail armor saves on elite troops RELIABLY. So my guard army has LD10 bubbles and reg standards to make my pin/morale tests 121/122 pas rate, and I spend a lot of time trying to understand the notion of threat ranges, ideal distances for "setting your opponent up," and figuring out ways to take dice out of the equation. My first army after the Necron? Tyranid. NO LD TESTS. Tons of models and wounds so I don't care if I fail saves well beyond odds. My Tyrants in a more foot-emphasized edition roll 12 dice with 3's to hit, then ROLL THEM AGAIN, then roll with S5 to wound, then ROLL THEM AGAIN. Little pig heaven.

My buddy Z's army is the perfect example of a list that - in certain missions - can win without dice. 23 ork vehicles, all KFF'ed, including 2 battlewagons, 9 kanz, 9 buggies, 5 ram trukks. In an objective mission w/ enough objectives on the board, this army can bumrush center on turn 1, disembark EVERY ork, and then cordon in an opponent by chucking all the vehicles at him, as the orks mosey over to their objectives, and a squad or two hangs back ready to pounce on anyone that busts out of the metal pile.

It also provides another example ... it CAN hem in a jump pack army also ... how? Well, dummy, don't just stick the vehicles in his face ... stagger it so that the faster ones block 'em off, and the slower ones sit at the lovely 10" away, so there's nowhere for them to land other than jumping an inch or two, or jumping sideways.

The same can be said for some Tau builds, that are capable of using piranhas, drones, and kroot to not just "soak hits." Even kroot bubbles aren't about simply sitting in front of people as bubble wrap ... it's about that perfect placement, that perfect location of units so that your opponent's ideal moves are completely baffled, buying the Tau army more turns to shoot despite not really having more board to back up / away to.

How many people have seen a Tau army lose to a BA or Ork opponent b/c they whiff a turn or two of railgun or missile pod fire? How many people have seen a Tau army not care b/c they've used the tools of the game to keep their crisis suits and railguns firing for two-three extra turns in spite of the whiffs?

Build your ideal list, understand the rules and target priority, but PAST that start thinking outside the box. Find ways to get yourself out of the probability pool, and into the tactics and movement pool. You can do it ... it's very doable. My own record as a gamer is strong ... and it's not b/c my lists are better; it's b/c I do everything in my power to make my units harder to kill, to place as much probability as possible between them and my opponents' efforts ... and I do the opposite when it comes to going after my opponent; anything I can do to take probability OUT of my efforts is a win that costs me no points, no rules arguments, and permits no cover saves.

A lot of people vastly underestimate this game ... they treat it as list building and dice rolling, and it's NOT. Your opponent can't roll cover saves against "smart." Think of all the ways your game can be elevated without having to pick up a d6 ... there are literally hundreds.

Keep this in mind:

Probability pool:

Tactics pool:


  1. {^}

    All important stuff, thanks for laying it out so plainly.

  2. very informative :)

    Pat, 11th Company

  3. I was following along nicely until the last picture, at which point I forgot what we were talking about.

    Nice article. I think.

    (...'cause you did say we could ask for a link)

  4. Nice post. It is really hard for me to tell whether something is 9 inches away or 10 inches away. I sure don't have that kind of precise vision. Did you study measurements to get that way or is this something that comes naturally from playing lots and lots?

  5. The reality is that in practice you're not trying to be 10" away ... you're happy being 10-13" away, or even a lil further ... think of its application to the grander scheme, rather than the precise "vacuum" example of a game involving just 2 chimeras and 2 vet squads across both sides :p

  6. Nice article. Out of interest, how many inches do you think the girl in that last picture needs?

    Oh, and if your giving away free links

    I'll add a link to your blog regardless of whether you link to mine on the basis of this article alone.

  7. Thanks for the link (you were linked from GAME OVER anyway, but you've earned it with this one).

    Funnily enough, I had these lessons brought home to me in the Last Ever Game Of Seventh Edition WFB that I played last night - one side of deployment was pretty much perfect, with some nice flexible charge options and no room for me to be multi-charged in return, while the other was a bloody shambles with units placed at exactly the right distance and angle to allow rolling charges, and opportunities to lock things down with ridiculously tough single models were completely missed, and lo! while I did win quite handily, I lost two units that I really shouldn't have lost. Always room for improvement...

  8. @ old shatter hands

    Here's a tip I picked up and pass out to newbs for practice. Hold a tape measure upside down and pull out 12" of tape. Then flip it over and see how close you were. Try again for 6", then 18, etc. Do it while you opponent takes his move and you'll get steadily better with gauging distance.

  9. Good article. Similar in vein to Puppy's recently but yours has better visuals ^^.

    Thought I h ad this blog on the roll but apparently I don't o.O. Swapsies? :P

  10. I have a question for you regarding Sisters of Battle and the "Pools"

    Exorcist = 135 points, its mech (we all know why thats good), but it relies on probability pool for attacking which is bad.

    5X Retributors, VSS + 4 Multimeltas = 169 Points, Adds one faith point (two when VSS dies), has 1 model and 4 guns to go through before being eliminated, but it doesn't rely on probability for its attacks (as much as a Exorcist would), although it has 24" less range alltogether.

    They both have the same Str and AP values, but Rets are Melta type, and have +2d6 in 12 inches. Sure the ranges differ, but if you park Rets on the front of your deployment zone, if your enemy comes out of his deployment zone his vehicles are toast once they move out of safety.

    Which one would you say is better? We all know Mech > Foot survivability wise, but what about with attacks? (and attacks that can remove Mech fairly easily at that point)

  11. Very good article. Um, how do I get into the tactics pool? Invitation-only, or...?

  12. Great article and since we are all doing shameless plugs for out blog to go up on Whiskey & 40k here is mine:


  13. re: Steve,

    I think Retributors are a harder sell; I don't think it's incorrect that the unit deployed forward in your zone can harm things if they get in range ... the bigger issue is that Sisters generally struggle to reach out and touch things that are hiding around board edges and sniping at you ... Eldar, autolas BA preds, Tau, and numerous other things all come to mind.

    What you need is a) something to threaten things across the board, and b) something to force difficult target priority decisions upon your opponent while a bajillion meltaguns and immolators race across the board. Hence the thought of including Exorcists in a lot of peoples' brains. The unit itself lives in the probability pool often ... certainly in regard to # of shots. That said, it also lives in the tactics pool b/c its inclusion and use in a properly built list can make your opponent have to use his brain more than he otherwise would be required to.

    I am not one to join the unwashed masses of self-titled 40k experts out there distributing advice from their blogs about exactly how your list should be built (and don't get your panties in a bunch re: that comment, Stelek, I'm sure you wash). So I'm not going to say "Exorcists good/bad," or Retributors ... well, whatever.

    The point is ... consider your list and the point of the units you include; EVERYTHING lives in the probability pool somewhat ... you still have to roll to hit and wound, you still have to roll armor saves, etc.; you shouldn't take the article as advice to select every unit based on that isolated component of good play ... BUT the fact that you're thinking as you are re: retributors vs. exorcists is rather precisely the point; you're actually thinking about how you could use and apply those units, and what the heck the point would be ... as opposed to simply taking netlist advice or living in the world of dice rolling.

    Personally, I tend to run immo spam sisters with a lot of meltaguns; I don't tend to use IG allies with them; as such, when I do play SOB (which is exceedingly rare these days, though I do own an army of them), I tend to include Exorcists; not b/c they are the bestest things in the world (though when they feel lucky they can be), but b/c it forces decisions on my opponent that would otherwise be far too easy.

    And yeah I'll get you dudes linked.

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  17. (Sorry Mike - I guess I didn't realize before I said something. Not sure what distracted me he says whilst looking at hot woman in bikini picture again.)

  18. Nice read and supports what my group has started to realize in the past few months. Though I have to admit, that sometimes throwing a lot of dice at something can usually force probability to come out in your favour (strategy behind the million lasguns and to a lesser extent bolter shock)

    Anyways, shameless plug for my own blog.

  19. Mr. A - I'd almost use that to support my notion. Well, not almost, I will.

    Here's what you're doing - the more dice you roll, the less probability you're playing around with and the more reliability.

    The more dice you roll, the closer you get to the odds, which means the closer you get to an expected / factual truth. You aren't getting as "non-probability" as moving a model 6" (which is completely outside the control of probability), but you're a lot better off and more in the tactics pool than rolling 1 dice. This goes into the tailed in discussion of redundancy, measuring twice/cutting once, etc.

  20. Is it just me or does that water look suspiciously yellow and foamy? Apparently peeing in the water doesn't stop just because you leave the kiddie pool.

  21. Is SHE one of the prizes at NOVA? Awww man... :(

    Great article, as usual Mike. I ddin't get why backing away was better, despite the Flamer clue in the intro, until the explanation, my Guard-fu is clearly weaker than I would like.

    I blame not having vehicles with Fire Points in my main army, and my second army not having decent guns BUT those coming out the hatch. It's a slightly different thought process when you are able to do both.

  22. So what happens if your opponent doesn't move? Does that negate your advantage? Would it put you back in the probability pool if he doesn't move? Like a chess match. Heh.
    Can you give some more examples to further expand on this topic? What are some of the tools you site above? I don't play Tau, but how do their units baffle your units movements?
    Thanks in advance,

  23. nice concept, but codex are inherently imbalanced, everyone else < Dark Eldar < Grey Knights no matter who plays. GW has terrible editorial control and the codexes really show it.