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"Pink isn't a color. It's a lifestyle." - Chumbalaya
"...generalship should be informing list building." - Sir Biscuit
"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tyranid Design Philosophies: What Needs to Change

It's no secret that I'm a very 'Niddy guy. I've written a lot about them in the past, I've argued for their viability to various degrees, I've struggled with alternate builds. But I don't write a lot about them anymore. Sometimes, but not often.

Partly it's no fault of their own- I've been playing the army for several years and wanted to start on a new one. I had a lot of fun with them and gotten a lot of mileage out of the codex and enjoyed converting up a lot of their units. I am not raging furious over them getting an update relatively early in 5th Edition.

At the same time, it very much is- I've gotten fed up with the limitations of the book and the repeated slaps in the face GW has given the faction. Especially looking at the other 5E releases, it's hard not to be unhappy with the results; until the recent Sisters of Battle debacle, no other current update had gone so wrong in terms of making the army viable, flexible, and fun at all levels of competition. While it's certainly better off than those books that have not yet gotten an update, like Eldar, Chaos Marines, etc, there is really no excuse for the mess that Cruddace made of it. Add in the kicks in the teeth from Grey Knights (and to a lesser degree Dark Eldar) and you have a pretty unhappy combination of factors.

So while I may still like Tyranids, there are a lot of very real problems with them these days, so I've ended up shelving them for the time being; I don't really want to put work into an army that I'll be unhappy with on the tabletop when I have dozens of other projects I'll enjoy more. If Tyranids are going to get a 6th Edition update, and it's not unreasonable to imagine they might, although they certainly won't be at the top of the list by any means, there are some things that I think need to change at the design studio.

I hope you're ready for this, because it's not going to be short. Neither is it going to be a "make my bugs better by reducing their points you see" rant- in fact, I don't even want to talk about points or specifics if I can. This is going to be about the army's philosophy and design ethos that drives the specific choices that are made, not about those specifics themselves.

*deep breath*

Into the Rabbit Hole

The very first problem we run into is that the designers just don't know what the hell Tyranids are about. Yeah, they're space bugs from space who eat everything, we get that. What's their army theme? Space Marines are super-generalists with strong utility abilities. Imperial Guard are a saturation shooting army that trades reliability for volume and resilience for numbers. Space Wolves are a close-in shooting/combat hybrid version of normal SM. Blood Angels are a mobility/resilience army with a flamer/melta theme snuck in. Dark Eldar are paper-thin offense whores that rely on getting the drop on their enemy (going first, striking first, etc.) Grey Knights are mid-range elite shooting/melee hybrid to trump other elite armies.

What the hell are Tyranids supposed to be? They aren't a good swarm army- none of their small bugs can hurt a tank, and most of them are terrible at close combat as well because of the way No Retreat works- moreover, you can't even DO an all small bugs army because you need Synapse. They aren't a midrange army because all of their medium bugs die too easily with 4+ (or worse) armor and no Eternal Warrior. They aren't a big bugs army because of the huge price tags associated with such models and the middling toughness (no EW, no invulnerable, no access to cover saves) of such models. They aren't a shooting army because most all of their guns are shorter range than their counterparts, often 24" or less. They aren't a melee army because they can't beat most other top-end melee units even with their best tricks (due to lacking grenades, invulnerable saves, etc) and because the melee army has no way to deal with tanks. It isn't an on-table army because its movement is, in most cases, fairly slow and ponderous and it can't afford to soak up the shooting that opposing forces dish out. It isn't a reserve army because the FAQ specifically denied them that option.

So what the fuck are Tyranids good at?

The simple answer is "Nothing, really." GW (or, perhaps, Cruddace, though he is hardly the sole author of the codex) doesn't really know what they want the army to do, so it does a bunch of things mediocrely and that's it. You can build for resilience- and, indeed, this is the most effective build- but you're not the best at it and you're not good enough, especially not when so many people have ways to bypass what you do.

In short, Games Workshop needs to take a good, long, look at the army and figure out where it needs to go in the future.

Fluffy Little Bunnies

The first step to this is fairly simple: get solidly behind the fluff and support it on the tabletop. Gasp! I know, a competitive player advocating adherence to the fluff? I like fluff. I think fluff can lead to a lot of great things, but I am not such a strict believer in it that I think it should supercede the rules of the game- instead, it should inform them. The fluff tells us that Tyranids are a horde army of the highest caliber, that they win by overwhelming even armies like the Imperial Guard with their sheer, unending numbers.

Well, let's do that. Let's make it so when you play Tyranids, you have a ton of stuff. Tervigons are a good start to that- fighting against Tervigons can feel like boxing with the ocean, as you hit it and hit it and hit it and never seem to make any progress in slowing it down. Why not apply that concept across the whole army? (The concept, mind you, not the mechanic- we do not need something that spawns 1d6 Carnifexes every turn.) Give Tyranids the ability to field large numbers of models- GW isn't going to be sad about that, they love it when people buy models. Give them the ability to replenish themselves by bringing models back, even to a limited degree. The boosts to the Wounds stat on the large Tyranid creatures were a good move, I feel- it makes them overwhelmingly large, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that trend.

Just as importantly, let there be different kinds of swarms. Make it viable to field a horde of small creatures led by one or two warrior beasts (without them being easily just gunned down to deny the army synapse.) Let players bring a ton of medium-sized monsters or a surprising number of huge beasts to the table, Make a mixed swarm viable, even while keeping the principles of saturation in mind.

Small swarms don't work right now because they lack the ability to harm vehicles and because it is too easy to just whittle them down. Tyranids shouldn't be losing by wars of attrition; that is their strong point. We'll talk about the issue with tanks later, but I'll just note in this part that Imperial armies, and even the DE army, don't have to worry about the majority of their squads being incapable of performing a particular function; Tyranids shouldn't get stuck in that boat.

Mid-size swarms have never really been viable, but with Warriors in troops they started to almost be a thing until Instant Death came and ruined the party. Cover helps mitigate this, but without MCs to distract those missiles, they will eat into you and your guys simply aren't cheap enough to field truly overwhelming numbers of them. They also, because of the S4/T4 standard, are basically unable to hurt tanks effectively, which tends to play out the same as little bugs,

Big critters suffer most from being overcosted- look at the poor, benighted Carnifex and Tyrannofex, both good examples of some pretty gross price bloat compared to the previous edition. Simply bolting more and more features onto a chassis, even when costed "appropriately," does not a good design make because you don't need all that stuff to fill your role. Grey Knights learn that one- just because it's a good price doesn't mean it's something you want to/can afford to buy. MCs need some kind of resistance/immunity to the autokill effects that are becoming common or, more appropriately, they need to get out of the "WS3 I1 A2 is fine for a 200pt model" mentality. Yes, monstrous creatures are supposed to be big, dumb, killing machines, but those just aren't viable stats the way the game is these days, not for anything that wants to get close to the enemy to do its job and certainly not for what is supposed to be one of the premier melee armies in the game. If you're making me pay a tax for high numbers, don't cut my legs out under me by using shoddy other numbers to render them ineffective. ("She gets two hundred miles to the gallon, my friend, by her tank only holds three thimbles full. Still, quite a bargain, eh?")

Hybrid armies suffer from... well, I'm sorry to say, but basically just Mr. Cruddace's inability to understand the mechanics of the game well. (And, to reiterate, I realize he is not solely responsible for the contents of the book, but it's his name on the cover, so I really can't help but aim all this at him. Mr. Cruddace, if you're by some strange chance reading this, feel free to mentally distribute the blame amongst the design/editing/whatever staff as only you know how to see fit, as we are unfortunately not privy to the details of who, exactly, did what.) The "big" and "small" parts of the book, barring the exception of the Tervigon's explicit rules, simply do not interact well. A squad of Hormagaunts adds very little synergy to a Trygon, and vice versa. If Games Workshop wants to push this kind of "mixed swarm" that is often portrayed in the fluff, there need to be mechanics that cause them to interact positively rather than negatively (as they do now). This can be done explicitly (such as by allowing smaller bugs to "shield" their larger companions somehow) or implicitly (by giving them both useful roles in an army they can complement each other with), but needs to be more of a conscious decision to implement such strategies in the book- as was done with some of the others- rather than a slavish devotion to what previous editions showed as the "correct" stats/options for a unit, with some tweaks slipped in around the edges.

Rip and Tear! Rip and Tear Your Guts!

Let's get back to melee. Specifically, let's talk a little bit about how melee is just not a viable strategy in 5E. Yes, that's right, there are some melee armies. Would you care to name them? Have they placed at the top of a lot of big events? No, they haven't. That's because melee is shit in this edition. With the prevalence of vehicles and the inequal comparisons of shooting and melee (sequential vs simultaneous), melee simply does not have a place as a singular/primary strategy the way melee does. Armies may contain melee elements, even contain major or significant melee elements (such as TH/SS, TWC, Paladins, etc), but those elements ALWAYS have at the very least shooting support- or, more commonly, act in support of the shooting elements of a list. Melee strategies cannot compete on their own.

Partly this is because of tanks. Tanks ruin melee in three main ways- they can easily block of its movement lanes, denying any ability of the melee army to affect it beyond certain hand-picked units that it is willing to sacrifice. Maneuvering can provide cover to vehicles, but it is much harder to completely block LOS than it is to block movement.

Tanks also make life for melee difficult by simply being very, very hard to hit in close combat. Yes, you might hit automatically or on a 4+ if you're lucky, but more likely the enemy general has rushed something in 7-12" and you are looking at getting an extremely limited number of hits, and with the innate resilience of AV (even just AV10, like most are on the rear) and the damage table, even dedicated combat units find themselves struggling to inflict anything more than 1-2 glancing hits on a fast-moving tank.

Finally, there is a fundamental difference in how the two phases are resolved; shooting is sequential, firing each of your units one at a time and then moving to another. If one meltagun doesn't kill that tank, you can decide to aim a Lascannon at it, and if that doesn't work you can try something else. Close combat, to contrast, is simultaneous, as you must declare all your charges chained together before knowing what any of them will result in. Especially with tanks and the randomness of the damage table, this is greatly hindering, as once you've committed you have no option to redirect some of your firepower elsewhere to use it more efficiently.

Tyranids in particular also suffer in the "melee on vehicles" arena because so many of their models are ill-equipped or totally incapable of hurting tanks. You might see images of Termagants swarming over a Rhino, firing into hatches and prying open vents, but the reality of the situation is that they're S3 and can never, ever, ever do a damn thing to it. They can't even hope to gum up its wheels with a Death or Glory attack; they have no grenades, no special weapons, nothing. Now, I'm not saying that everything should be S4 or S5 so they can punch tanks to death, but some kind of mechanic to allow the smaller guys some functionality against tanks would be a huge help, and really even the mid-sized ones wouldn't mind a hand, either. There should be some kind of disadvantage to driving waist-deep in Gaunts, both for fluff and army balance reasons.

Add It Up

What can we do to bring things in line with what we want? What can we do to make them feel more like a menacing alien horde and less like a collection of goofy models?

Enforce the hive mentality. Synapse is a great start on this, as are the Tyrant's and Tervigon's auras, but why stop there? Why not have Tyranids be the premiere "aura" army, handing out bonuses like candy on Halloween? Dawn of War takes some of this approach, with each of your Synapse creatures giving out a unique bonus to nearby units (or units of certain types.) We could also take a page from the Tyranid Prime and give them lots of ICs that grant a particular effect to squads they join- so, for example, perhaps the Hive Tyrant can give his squads Preferred Enemy, or Tyranid Warriors give Poison to their little buddies, or other, stranger effects. But what we want to enforce here is the "made for a purpose" concept (which the current book does a decent job with, I admit) along with a "every part is expendable" motif. Lost a squad? So what, just attach a HQ to a different squad and give them the ability to do a thing.

This actually leads right into my next point: Tyranids are disposable. The current book handles this fine, but I think it's important to highlight how they did it. This is why Tyranids do not get invulnerable saves or Eternal Warrior, because conceptually those are protective abilities, whereas the Hive Mind is not interested in protecting its creations except insomuch as that allows them to accomplish their job. And usually why spend more protecting one when you could have two instead, so the first one dying is irrelevant? This is one of the ways in which I think the current design philosophy is just fine, but the book (and other books in the game) need to take this into account when balancing abilities, because it's just not acceptable for things like Jaws of the World Wolf, Huskblade, and Warp Rift to be flattening whole swathes of the Tyranid army with no recourse for them to do anything about it. It's fine for an army to have weaknesses; those weaknesses should not be so prevalent and crippling that there are multiple auto-lose matchups and powers available from both old and new codices.

Speaking also about the issues of melee and shooting, Tyranid shooting needs to be more versatile. It's fine to want to differentiate it from other armies by being primarily short-ranged, or with minimal AP, or whatever, but lacking ANY options in those respects is simply crippling the book for no reason, especially when there are no melee options to fill the gaps. How do Tyranids deal with a fast skimmer army? You might think that it's by using Harpies, Gargoyles, etc, but as it turns out these creatures are actually quite worthless against such targets and, in fact, you simply don't have a way to deal with such a force. If the army is going to be melee-focused, give it options in melee other than "charge" and "charge more." Give it melee to handle ALL types of targets; give it lots of melee specialists, not just one or two mediocre ones. Give it options across all slots.

Vehicles are, in another sense, a strange point in the Tyranid codex. Alone amidst all the other armies in the game (especially now that Necrons are getting major rewrites), Tyranids lack access to ANY vehicles. That's an entire mechanic of the game that they simply don't get, and it's fine as a fluff-derived piece but they should get something else in return. T6 and 3+ saves on monstrous creatures simply do not cut it- a Missile penetrates a tank on way, way worse than the 2+ it wounds a MC on and tanks often come with free ways to get cover AND have the damage table to roll on. Having multiple wounds can be useful, but not when they are so comparatively fragile against vehicles, since you're being successfully hurt (wounded/penetrated) more often and taking similar numbers of successful shots to bring down (four wounds to kill an MC vs. average three penetrations to kill a tank.)

This also spills over into the issue of mobility- some of this was included in the current book through Mycetic Spores, special deployments, wings, etc, but lacking the mobility of other transport-based armies, Tyranids NEED these options. Snuffing them out (like the FAQ) or making them blatantly worse (like Spores) simply isn't kosher because Tyranids are an army that, more than any other, live and die by the ranges they are at.

Final Thoughts

Well, I warned you that would be a lot of words, and it was.

5th Edition has done a good job for learning to hammer out niches for each of the codices to sit in comfortably without overtly stepping on each other's toes and without unbalancing the game or gameplay, which I think is good. Tyranids, however, found their nook a little bit too dusty and ill-fit for me to really end up happy with where they are. Is the codex an abomination and worthless? No. Is this little rant of mine to vent my fury at their unusability? No, not at all; indeed, for casual players the book will be entirely viable, if a lot more cramped than the other books of this era of design. What I'm aiming for here is a goal for the next book and something for GW (by some miracle, or more likely the players) to think about with the codex and its descendants. It's not just enough to say "there are problems," we want to understand what those problems are, why they occurred and how they can be avoided in the future.

GW really needs to hammer out what it is that Tyranids are supposed to do in the overall environment of the game and what sort of role they are to play; they need to give them unique mechanics and units, because of all the armies in 40K, Tyranids are perhaps the most flexible in terms of "Well, the fluff says this and this and this." Yeah, well, guess what, Tyranids mutated, now it isn't like that anymore. They're an infinitely maellable meta-organism that lives by adapting, they need to take advantage of that.

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