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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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Littlest Game, Part 1

One of the things that people have been asking to see on the blog for a while now, at least in small/moderate numbers, is some focus away from 2000pts, which is something of a standard in a lot of places. In fact, we've even had several discussions about it relatively recently, and I wrote an article on it back in the day. However, it's something that bears some more looking into, so it's something I've been meaning to get back to for a while.

The Basics
Playing at 1500, 1000, or 500pts is very different from higher point values in some ways, but in others it's very much the same. In looking at how armies change, it's important to remember that the fundamental strategic and tactical strategies are, in most cases identical to larger games. It is only how we apply these strategies that is different. Of course, there are some important differences as well, most especially in list-writing, but we can see how these come about by applying what we already know about the game to the unique circumstances of such points levels.

The first thing to understand about playing smaller games is that you can't just take your 1850 or 2K list and shrink it down proportionately; a few armies can do something like this, but for the vast majority of them you will need to reconsider your entire list from the start. This is because there are major differences in what you can hope to achieve at different points levels- in a larger game you might be able to afford enough Terminators to be a threat while also having scoring units and fire support, but in a small game that may not be true. Many builds require on achieving a certain amount of saturation with a unit that may not be doable in small points values; these lists simply will not work in such a game. Lists that resolve around a special character, most notably those that unlock an alternate troops choice, will struggle greatly at 1500 and are all but impossible at anything below that.

All of these things are consequences of the way the game scales, which is also very important to understand. The Force Organization Chart is static, even when points values change; you will still need to bring your one HQ and two Troops to the table (although often this is partially waived at 500pts.) This means as the game size shrinks, the FoC becomes both more restrictive (your mandatory selections take up a larger percentage of your points) and less restrictive (since "only" having three each of FA, EL, and HS means a lot less with the points available.) Taking advantage of these changes can often be key to building good lists at these points values, but it's also important to understand the value of units changing. Whereas there are some selections that are more or less automatic 3x includes in many types of lists at larger points, in a small game taking triples of them may unreasonably cripple your ability to take other units.

Better or Worse
There is quite a lot of talk about what the "best" point value is, but I think it essentially boils down to being different depending on what your expectations of the game are. A low points value is easier on starting players, since it presents a lower barrier to entry; games also tend to be simpler, quicker, and focus a bit more on the "core competencies" of many armies. On the other hand, large games allow players to use more of their plastic spacemen at once, which for those who have been in the game for a while can be nice to do- it's appealing for many of the same reasons Apocalypse is.

The game is, speaking generally and as much from opinion as anything else, fine for play from 1500 to 2000pts; this is the range that the FoC works out best at and that the units in the books tend to be balanced for. Undoubtedly this will provoke plenty of "No, (insert your choice of 2000/1850/1750/1600/1500/1832) is the best value because ______" comments, but I am firmly of the belief that the game works just fine at a reasonable range of values. Now, which armies function well at those values is a different matter- some armies are only viable at 1500, others only at 2000; neither of them particularly give you more options or less options, just different options. For a canny list builder, there is much to be discovered at almost any points value. Once the game starts dropping below 1500, however, the FoC starts to break down for many of the reasons mentioned above and some units tend to be unreasonably useful/useless. For this reason, I think 1000pts is about the lowest I would want to play a "normal" game of WH40K; less than that and you simply aren't seeing a meaningful representation of how the game functions. It can still be fun, and is very useful as a teaching tool for new players entering the game, for whom the finer points of army selection are really not so much of an issue, but many unfair and unbalanced things can happen at these levels. However, we will still be considering those point values for this article series, it's just good to understand that they have their problems.

Neither, also, should we consider list-writing to be harder for a given points value- certainly, at 1500pts or 1000pts you need to be more careful about what you can fit in, but at 2000 or 2500pts you need to be thinking about how you can most efficiently use the FoC, which isn't a concern in smaller games. Each point value has its own considerations to make and its own peculiarities as to what does and doesn't work. Those used to 2000pt lists may find 1500pts confining and have trouble cutting their expectations of what a list "should" have down; those used to 1500pts may go gonzo with a 2000pt list, forgetting how fast the those extra points can disappear and that all the same strictures of value still apply.

Luck as a Skill
Two of the most common things bandied about when talking about different points levels is that one of them is "more skill-based" and the other is "all about luck." The go both ways- big games are just about luck because if you get first turn, you shoot the enemy off the table before they can do anything, while small games are all about luck because the loss of a few models can drastically effect your army, etc. There is a grain of truth to these claims; certainly, in larger games focused fire can eliminate almost anything frighteningly easy, which means no unit can be relied up on to do a job by itself, and in smaller games, with the fewer numbers of dice being thrown around, a string of good (or bad) results can very easily swing a game, like a model that just refuses to die. Does this make either value better or worse? No, just different in how you expect to play. In large games, you CANNOT rely on a linchpin for your army, because the enemy will kill it as soon as they realize what it is. In small games, individual units need to be more flexible because it is likely that any given unit will be called on to perform multiple tasks.

Some Basic Strategies
We'll go back and reference that opening bit once more here, in case people have forgotten: everything you know about normal WH40K still applies here. Mobility is still important. Claiming objectives is still important. Cover is still very, very common. Vehicles are still hard to kill. Small games are just like big games, only smaller.

There are some things to think about, however; for examplel in smaller games, torrent of fire is less likely to be able to take out important models in 10man squads, since you'll see fewer large enemy units capable of laying enough wounds onto something to force that save on the Priest/etc. This is not to say it won't happen, but it won't be quite so everyday an occurence. Smaller games will also see TLOS be something you are more likely to be able to use to hide entirely, since there is relatively more cover on the board due to the size of armies.

This also comes up as a simple matter of space on the board- if you are using a 6'x4' board in 1000 or 500pt game, things are going to be VERY empty! However, even in a 1500pt game, this means there is more room to maneuver than many people are used to and fewer chances of a traffic jam with vehicles. It also means more space to run to and more table to cross- refused flank deployments can be particularly brutal in small games and speedy armies will find themselves able to run for quite a bit longer than they might otherwise expect. Melee armies get a bit of a jab as the game size goes down, as they are more likely to lose a lot of models crossing the board (being relatively larger), which can hurt their chances.

Fewer units on the table also means missions with multiple objectives will play out differently, as few lists will have enough troops to claim more than two or three of them and contesting will also be harder. Only rarely, when both players intentionally throw units into a meat grinder, will you see wipeouts, as the expansive board makes it rather simple to hide a unit out of LOS or out of range of the enemy to preserve it.

Some Lists: 500pts
So having said all that, let's throw out a few lists to get things going. I'll be tackling 500pts this time because I feel it's a rare enough points value that it doesn't warrant a whole article of its own; the assumptions are also less standardized (whether the normal FoC is used, if there are any special limitations on what models can be brought, etc) than other points values; here I will be assuming that at least one Troop is required and that no models are explicitly forbidden, but otherwise use the normal rules. Note that it's not uncommon for 500pt games to also use a nonstandard scoring method (like VP) to judge games, since the small number of models doesn't lend itself well to the normal missions.

Tyranids 500pts
1 Tyranid Prime (Twin Swords)
2 Hive Guard
2 Hive Guard
10 Termagants (Devourers)
10 Termagants (Devourers)

When melee is subpar, do the other thing. You only have the one source of Synapse, but he can duck between squads as necessary. Not a lot of people will have long-ranged anti-infantry to get rid of your Gaunts and the hail of Devourer fire will usually solve most problems pretty effectively. You invest a lot of points into Hive Guard, but they're still worth it and you still need to down some tanks now and again.

Blood Angels 500pts
1 Sanguinary Priest (Jump Pack)
10 Assault Marines (2 Melta, Power Fist)
10 Assault Marines

Very basic- you are fast, can deploy flexibly, and have some basic anti-tank. If you feel uncomfortable with lack of any toys on the second squad, one or two bodies can be cut to afford them. Aim your Melta at Dreads first if you see them, as they can be a pain to get rid of.

Space Wolves 500pts
3 Wolf Guard (TDA + Cyclone; )
5 GH (Melta; LasPlas Razor)
5 GH (Melta; LasPlas Razor)
4 Long Fangs (3 Missile)

Nice and tidy. Guard split off to their respective units (TDA with Fangs, obv) and you have good long-range firepower, some point-blank Melta and Bolter shots and the potential for a reasonable assault force. Flexible at most all ranges.

Dark Eldar 500pts
3 Trueborn (2 Splinter Cannon; Venom w/Cannon, Night Shields)
5 Warriors (Venom w/Cannon, Night Shields)
1 Ravager (Night Shields)
1 Ravager (Night Shields)

Pew pew! In a the broad, open battlefields of 500pts, Night Shields are at their best, as you can maneuver to be exactly where you need to be without worrying about blocking your own lanes of fire. Twin Ravagers can deliver a punishing first strike (which you are all but guaranteed thanks to the Shields) and have far less worry about return fire; Trueborn and the Venoms will hammer any infantry that appear. Either of the two Venoms can potentially be traded for a Raider with Shields and Shock Prow if you want a little more oomph against hard targets.

Tau 500pts
2 Crisis (TL Missile, DC, 2 Gun Drones)
2 Crisis (Missile, Plasma, Multi, Team Leader)
2 Crisis (Missile, Plasma, Multi)
6 Fire Warriors
1 Piranha (Fusion, Array, Disruption)

"The minimum," as they say. Your FW are there because they have to be- if you could get away with it, you'd drop them for Kroot (or nothing.) Load up on suits and JSJ to your heart's content, with a Piranha providing mobile cover, blocking, and emergency tank-busting as needed.

Tau 500pts
6 Fire Warriors (Devilfish w/SMS, MT, TA, DP)
6 Fire Warriors (Devilfish w/SMS, MT, TA, DP)
1 Piranha (Fusion, Array)
1 Piranha (Fusion, Array)

My lulz list. You have four skimmers, all with cover, that can zoom around, fire without LOS, and generally make a hassle of themselves. Play like you're Dark Eldar, only survivable, and use Piranhas to break tanks then 'Fish to kill the contents. Expect to see draws fairly often, but also expect to very rarely lose models.

Necrons 500pts
8 Warriors (Ghost Ark)
1 Annihilation Barge
1 Annihlation Barge
1 Annihilation Barge

Like the Tau, above, but mostly better. Four AV13 vehicles is all but impossible for most 500pt armies to bring down and you spew out so many shots most people don't stand a chance. Wrecking tanks is a little tricky, but you should be able to land enough hits on them to do it consistently; infantry will just melt under your firepower. Beware Meltaguns.

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