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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

40k Theory: Picking a Line Part I

Hello all, Nikephoros back again.  The theorycraft will be heavy in this one, and it will be wordy, but hopefully you find it worthwhile.

In every game where skill usually (but not always!) beats luck, there comes a point in close matches where each player has to begin thinking about the end game.  In Warhammer 40k, and to an even greater extent Warhammer Fantasy, your opening moves are fairly rote; your deployment and opening turn or two tend to follow a fairly regular script.  At some point, however, the chaos of a closely fought battle will throw whatever your initial plans were into vapor.

It is at this point when the thoughts about how you’re actually going to win should start bouncing around your head.  In normal games there are two ways to win, mission objectives or tabling.  In tournaments, there mission goals are often complex enough that you can work towards drawing on the primary and winning on the secondary or tertiary goals if they are to your advantage. 

In a hypothetical game, it is your turn 3 and you’re evenly matched with your opponent in terms of resources remaining, as well as playskill.  You realize that you need to start crafting the game-state to support your end game strategy.  For instance, if your plan is to win by controlling table quarters you need to start positioning yourself to do that prior to the last turn.  The later you wait to begin crafting the desired game-state, the more easily disrupted by your opponent you will be, and the more likely luck will play a factor in whether or not it works.

But this is getting ahead. 

Picking a Line

This is the trademark skill of a veteran player piloting a list he is familiar with, and also the downfall of a new player, or someone with a list they have no experience with.  In our hypothetical game, on turn 3, you have several options in front of you.  You can go for the tabling.  You can try to win on Objectives.  Perhaps you realize that because you lost a lot of your Troops but not much else that you cannot win on Objectives.  So you can try to contest your opponents, tie on Objectives and win by Victory Points, or whatever the secondary mission goal is.

How do you know which line of play to pick?  Clearly, each line of play has a different probability of success.  Unlike Poker, there is no way to come up with a relatively accurate mathematical assessment of success with each line.  Here is where experience comes in handiest.  A veteran player has played enough games to see similarities between the current game-state and previous ones he has played.  His experiences in how those matches played out will inform him of his reasonable expectations of success in this one.  Obviously, the fewer games you’ve played, the smaller your sample size and the less reliable your experience is.

So play more is my advice.

But that is bad advice, and a bit of a let down, eh?  OK, well how do you pick a line in the abstract if you’re not an experienced player?  In my above example, I hinted at it.  If your Troops are decimated but everything else is intact, you can see that winning by controlling the most Objectives is likely to be difficult.  Let’s say it’s Turn 3 and neither player has had effective shooting and not much is dead.  Tabling could be rather difficult.  A player could say, “there are only two 3 turns left, and he still has 90% of his army intact, I probably won’t be able to table him.”  Perhaps it is the opposite, and it’s been very bloody and you realize that you each only have 25% of your armies left, at that point tabling becomes a much more probable result.

Additionally, your choice of army matters.  A defensive, tough to kill army is going to have a better chance on winning Objectives or Table Quarters than a softer army.  You have to take the unique characteristics of your Codex and list into account when you pick your line of play, as they can and should influence your ability to win with a particular line.  For an obvious example, Eldar are going to be pretty good at the late game objective grab, whereas Orks are going to be better able to win by kill points or tabling.

To continue our hypothetical game, it’s Turn 3, and you have a line of play in mind that you think will carry the game for you.  How do you make it actually happen?

Crafting a Game-State

In any good strategy game, you sow the seeds of your victory early.  Obviously, winning the game by Objectives requires you to play in a very different style than by trying to table your opponent.  Once you’ve chosen your line, it is highly important to craft the game-state in such a way as to make your line as successful a choice as possible.  This often means you need to do a complete re-evaluation of both your units, and your opponent’s.

In a game you plan by winning through Objectives, a particular unit of yours might be more valuable to you than normally.  As a corollary, a unit might be forced to take a different role than normal.  In the first example, a defensive tar pit unit with Feel No Pain rises from mediocrity to become one of your best assets.  In the second, it means an aggressive close combat oriented unit has to stay back and hold an objective.  In either example, you have to identify these things when you choose your line and make your subsequent moves with this knowledge in mind.  If you’re going to need that CC unit to hold a rear objective, moving them forward and into close combat is probably counter productive towards your goal, even if that was what the unit was ‘supposed to do’ in the objective sense.

As I said, you also have to evaluate your opponent’s forces.  You have your plan, what stuff does he have that can stop you?  Perhaps in a “normal” game, Unit A of his is the highest priority for you to kill.  It is entirely possible that once you embark on a line of Objective control that a different unit of his becomes more dangerous and becomes a higher priority.  If you figure this out on Turn 3, when you pick the line of play, you can start trying to neutralize his threats then, rather than sweating out the last turns.  This is the entire point of crafting a game-state: arranging your units (and his) to enact a specific goal so that on the last turn of the game you already have the win so firmly established that your opponent can’t disrupt it any longer.  Create inevitability.  There is nothing quite like the moment when your opponent realizes that the game-state you have carefully crafted is inevitable and he can’t win even before the game is officially over.

That’s a wrap for Part I.  In Part II, I will discuss how to take the concept to the next level, which is how to beat a capable opponent who also knows how to craft a game-state and pick a line.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Questions?

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