Monday, June 20, 2011

Terrain to Expect at the NOVA Open - 40K; Thoughts on Terrain in Tournaments in General

To begin any discussion about tournament terrain, the first and most important thing to do is read Games Workshop’s own commentary on terrain for Warhammer 40,000. You may or may not always like what GW does with its company or rules, but we love and play this game for a reason … so let’s see what they say about the game.

As a general rule in Warhammer 40,000, the more terrain, the better the gaming experience. If you use too little terrain, games will be short and not very satisfactory, with too much advantage going to the player who gets to shoot first. For a balanced game, where close combat troops have a chance to get into contact with the enemy without being completely blown away in a couple of turns, we expect that about a quarter of the total playing surface should have terrain on it. The assumption here is that if terrain pieces are roughly 12” by 12”, then six or seven pieces are needed to fulfill the 25% recommendation on a standard 6’x4’ table (of course these dimensions are approximate and terrain features like woods should not be square, as irregular features look much better!).

In your terrain collection there should be a good mixture of types. An equal division between terrain which interferes with line of sight and provides cover (Such as woods or ruins), terrain which provides cover, but does not block line of sight (such as barricades, craters, scrubland and low rubble), and terrain which blocks line of sight completely (such as hills, rocky outcrops, buildings, etc.) makes for good tactical play. It is best to build your terrain collection with this in mind, otherwise the game balance could be seriously affected. Terrain that completely blocks line of sight is particularly important. Too much of it and your ranged firepower will be seriously impaired favoring assault troops; too little and the game will turn into a shooting match, with very little movement or tactical choices.

Alright … so we have a couple of things to work with here; terrain that obscures line of sight, terrain that doesn’t obscure line of sight, and terrain that completely blocks line of sight. We also know special attention should be paid to terrain that does block line of sight completely – not too much, not too little.

I actually would put your TYPICAL tournament terrain as “trees” and “low hills” covering the same category as barricades, craters, etc., with ruins and dense trees and taller hills covering the “interferes with line of sight” component, and true LOS blocking buildings and much taller hills being true line of sight blockers. Contrary to what some people will say, if your rhinos and chimeras and such cannot hide behind a piece of terrain, it is not line of sight blocking terrain for purposes of Warhammer 40,000 5th edition (A very vehicle heavy edition, as we all know). The same applies to monstrous creatures. I’m not sure if every LOS blocker should shield over-sized vehicles like Land Raiders and Vendettas, but you should at least be able to hide your transports and/or smaller vehicles to some point on the board.

Games Workshop hits on it themselves somewhat, but the biggest issue with tournament balance and gameplay is the viability of alpha strike armies … armies that by reserving when going 2nd, or deploying when going 1st …. Are simply built to overpower an enemy starting with the first turn of shooting. When you do not play with enough terrain as a general rule, you find more and more players that talk about these sorts of armies as “overpowered” and in other ways inappropriate. Good examples of this are pure missile and razorback spamming “Razorwolf” Space Wolf armies, typical “leafblower” styled long-ranged Imperial Guard armies, Darklight and/or Venom spamming DE armies, and the like. It should be no wonder that when you encounter players who use a full GW-suggested quantity of terrain in every game, they’re a little flabbergasted that these lists alone seem to garner so much ire from the internet. Now, do not mistake the notions of MSU and redundancy as being where we are going here – there are plenty of lists that leverage the tried and true strategy notions of redundancy and MSU, but do not rely entirely on long range fire and alpha striking.

The caution goes in both directions here, however – you as much do not want to encourage gunline alpha strikes BEYOND their intended balance, as you do not want to encourage pure assault armies to go beyond their intended balance.

What is the intended balance? Well, GW with its beautiful 2 paragraphs on terrain tell us more about their intent for the game and their desire to actually have balance than they do almost anywhere else. The general point here is they WANT balance.

So how do we assist this in a tournament setting?

First thing’s first – we need to minimize the differences from table to table. While it is impossible for every table at a tournament to be identical and equally fair (At least at a larger event) resource-wise … and frankly excitement-wise … it IS possible for every table to have the same basic terrain format. For the NOVA, we’ve extensively playtested and tournament-run with an “x” formation of larger terrain pieces, and a couple of smaller items. We want the terrain itself to cover about 25% of the board, and be a good mix of types. Here’s a sample chucked into a board quarter marker on Vassal.

We need at least one piece that completely blocks line of sight … and if one is where we’re going with that, it needs to probably go in the center of the table. “Centering” your main line of sight blocking terrain accomplishes a couple of things very quickly. First, an alpha striking army needs to make the difficult decision of deploying “split” into corners if it wants clear fire to all parts of an opposing army; if it chooses to castle or deploy centered, it’s going to have to contend with line of sight blockage. This single piece of terrain alone is the first BIG step in balancing out alpha strike long range vs. close combat and/or short range styled army builds. You do not want to go too far here – if you place your large LOS-blocking or partially los-blocking piece in the center, you need to leave the areas to the left and right to it more wide open; this presents the tactical challenge to both players of how to address crossing / preventing the crossing of the board – center with cover and LOS blockage, or sides with openness but division of forces / sacrifice of the mobility advantages the center offers. If you put los blocking pieces ACROSS the center at even intervals, you’ve instantly harmed the balance of the game TOO much in one direction – close combat armies, jump armies, etc., can all cross the board in whatever capacity they wish … all choices are equally safe.

The next thing we need to do is place the remainder of our terrain for TOURNAMENT BALANCE purposes. It is reality that in a larger setting, people rarely have the willingness to run around a long row of tables by choosing the OTHER side of where they randomly wound up upon arriving at their table assignment. You do not want the entire flow and balance of the game to fall upon the comfort or feasibility of where players are in a row of tables, and their ability to lug their army all the way around it. For this reason, you want the terrain to generally be fair for both players REGARDLESS of table side or deployment style. Dawn of War is less important to factor in here than Spearhead and Pitched Battle. To keep things square here, our 4 remaining larger pieces that provide at least some LOS obscuring is to place one in each quarter of the board, nominally around the center of the quarter. This is the final piece of the puzzle in encouraging games to be tactical, and balanced regardless of pure firepower, in that it enables a player to deploy covered if he/she so chooses. This protects the player with foresight from getting blown off the board or forced into unwilling reserves simply off the “who goes first” dice roll, or the initiative seize. We’ve also offset them away from “lining up” with the larger LOS Blocker in center, so if a closer range army wants to heavily utilize these offset pieces for cover on deployment, they are going to have a more difficult path across the board if they want to stay covered. Choices, and the freedom to play without the terrain inhibiting or helping you to an unfair degree, are what we’re going for here.

Finally, we’ve got a couple of small pieces to round out the 25% and give the board tactical depth … the “safe” bet is to place them centered along the long table edges, and aligned with the centerpiece. You don’t want these particular pieces to be too LOS-blockish … some is ok, but mainly they should be lighter area terrain type items.

The result is a board that looks something like this for either Quarters or Pitched Battle deployments:

The most important catch with all this is to do what you can to accomplish the MINIMUM first on all boards. Acquiring and providing roughly equivalent terrain across the length and breadth of a large tournament is one of the most difficult and expensive prospects facing a tournament organizer, but it is also one of the most important things to the success of a Warhammer 40,000 event. Even at the 2010 NOVA Open, we had some boards that did not match the format above, and those were often the cases where you heard about it from players … they felt the boards in some capacity let down their playing experience. While the majority were quite good, our hope and plan this year is to ensure ALL of our tables are up to the standards we set forth.

One way or another, the point here is the same point one really applies anywhere in tournament preparation – analyze, think, playtest, and litmus test all of the various components and notions of a tournament if you are going to run one. Do not hamfistedly throw together random missions, do not simply scatter terrain randomly about every board, do not print out your scoresheets the night before and flick a few copies around the tables and suggest people “share.” Apply attention to detail, and an honest willingness to accept critique and use what you can of it to make your event better (without sacrificing your vision or fun).

Sallow me to add yet anotherREMINDER for the NOVA Open 2011 ( At this point, we still have about 35 spots left for our Warhammer 40,000 256-player 8-rounds-for-all GT. Thousands in prizes and even cash, nice little swag bags, and gamers from literally around the world await the intrepid attendee, plus social outings and events in the heart of the capital of the United States of America. For questions or input, you can reach me at or through the NOVA’s website (again, … hopefully this was a helpful guide to setting up your terrain at home, or in a tournament setting, to the betterment of the game and a more fun experience.



  1. Do you think it's an issue that a Landraider can be fully obscured for it's first half of movement across the table? It looks to me like the centre piece is large enough to allow this.

  2. A land raider would only be able to be LOS blocked from the center p.o.v.; I think it's actually quite fine for it to have COVER, which it's going to have anyway from smoke or smoked blocking rhinos/etc.

    And yeah, generally, I think it should be possible for more assault / close oriented armies to be able to achieve cover and some LOS blockage crossing a board, instead of relying purely on 4+ hope saves and a shooting gallery of an alpha strike.

    The catch here is they won't be able to deploy LOS blocked AND move up completely LOS blocked, so much as be able to gain los blockage from certain angles, which is the point of the opponents' choices in the movement phase.

  3. soooooo who's up for making 1,000 pieces of terrain? ha! Looking forward to Sunday. This was a good primer for the effort.

  4. This is one of the better articles I've read on terrain.

    One criticism, however, and that is the first diagram: What is pictured is still less than the 25% minimum recommended in the rulebook.

    I'd suggest if you're dealing with large and amorphously shaped area terrain, then using a table quarter as a guideline is okay so long as the terrain over-flows that quarter rather than being contained with that quarter and therefore not covering the minimum stated in the book.

    Yeah, it's a quibble, and the problem is easily solved by filling up the gaps with non-area terrain pieces like barricades and tank-traps and so on. Like I said, this is one of the better articles I've read on the subject.