Thursday, 29 October 2015

40k Army Building - Assessing a unit's strength


Hi all, and welcome to the second article of the list writing section of my army building series. Today I'm going to look at critically assessing the units within your codex and their strengths and weaknesses, and how they can contribute to a coherent, synergistic strategy.

See other articles in the series here




So how do we approach this element of writing a list? Well, put simply, you cannot, ever, assess a unit's strength in a vacuum. I don't mean that you'd struggle to breathe (though clearly you would, which would result in a lack of oxygen in your brain and you'd become stupid. And then you'd die, so probably best not to try it) what I mean is that without knowing the capabilities of other units in the codex, you can't tell how strong a unit will be. Let's have a quick look at an example to show you what I mean.

Chaos Marine Havocs. These models can take missile launchers with a S8 AP3 krak missile, ideal for breaking through pesky power armour, and from a decent range to prevent much retaliation. Brilliant, I hear you say, especially with the added bonus of a blast option for horde armies. I'll take three squads. Well, no, you won't, because in the same codex, you have the Heldrake, which brings an equally nasty flamer weapon, still killing those marines on 2's, without the need to roll to hit, and with the added bonus of ignoring cover and being a flyer so more difficult to hit in return. The Havocs look strong at taking down power armour enemies until you see the alternative.
So the first thing you need to look at is the unit's profile and type. These tell you what it's good at and what it isn't. Initially I look to see if there's a discrepancy between WS and BS, which if there is should certainly give you an idea as to what the unit is intended for. If the WS is higher, you'll then want to look specifically at S, T, W, I, A and Ld. As a general rule, an average stat for each of those is 3,3,1,3,1, and 7 (Basically a guardsman) or 4,4,1,4,1,8 (Marine). If you're looking at a better that that statline then you're probably looking at a combat specialist. If the BS is higher, then you'll want to look at much less of the model's profile, BS and Ld will probably be sufficient, though T and W are useful factors as well. Average BS is 3 for a guardsman and 4 for a marine, so comparing those will give you an idea of just how much of a shooty unit something is. Watch out here, as you will most definitely need to also cross compare the profile with itself. Take this one for example. BS-3, T-3, W-1, Ld-7. Not a great shooting unit based on that evidence, but cross-compare with the combat potential WS-2, S-3, T-3, W-1, I-2, A-1, Ld-7. It's pretty clear that of the two the shooting profile comes out on top. That's actually the profile for a firewarrior, one of the best shooting troops units in the game, so you can see how looking at individual elements of the profile can be misleading. An experienced army builder will probably be able to take all this in in a matter of seconds, but we're working from first principles here, so it's worth discussing.

That examination of the profile therefore will probably give you an indication of the direction the unit is intended to follow. Next step therefore is looking at its type. These are defined in the main rulebook, but will also go a long way towards assessing a unit's effectiveness.

In the last article, I discussed the concept of mobility and its value in the game, and certain types of unit have increased innate mobility. Bike units and Jump Pack units have an increased movement in the movement phase, Whilst Jet Pack units bring additional movement options in the assault phase beyond charging headlong into the enemy. Beast units are also considerably more mobile than most, particularly through terrain, whilst Monstrous Creatures also brush obstacles aside. The basic Infantry type is not a bad option to have here, it's just that most of the others bring additional benefits, occasionally at the cost of something negative (for example bike units can't go to ground). Ultimately the model's type will not be a decisive characteristic on its own, but it can often enhance the innate strengths elsewhere (for example models with the relentless rule can move and fire heavy weapons, which makes them much more effective)

Next up then we need to look at the wargear a model carries, and this may very well be the most divisive element of assessing a unit's strength as equipment varies considerably in its effectiveness against certain armies. If you do a thorough assessment though, you should still be able to be fairly consistent in your rating of a unit's effectiveness.

Again, we're going to need to look at shooting units separately to combat units, but here we'll also need to consider the quantity of weapons we'll have available, and this is where it gets complex. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself though, so let's look at the basic principles. I'll look at shooting units first, as they're a bit simpler to assess.

First thing we need to know is the weapon's range. The main asset of a shooting unit is their ability to reach out and affect your opponent's strategy from some distance away. Clearly a greater range is an asset here, since the earlier you can start shooting, the more shots you'll be able to send their way before retaliation happens (I'm reminded of a scene from Starship Troopers where the drill instructor justifies being able to throw a knife by saying 'The enemy cannot push a button, if you disable his hand'. That's true, but you're also unlikely to be able to throw a knife if they've shot your head off from half a mile away).
Drill sergeants. Dontcha just love 'em
That's not to say that shorter range weapons can't be effective (or even more effective) but you have to consider the range as part of the effectiveness. Next most important part of assessing the guns a unit carries is the AP value. I know I know, what about strength I hear you say? Well, as far as I'm concerned, AP is far more important than strength (up to a point, you'll probably notice that everything has a balance to be struck here). Why is that? Well put quite simply, it's maths. Imagine for example a S3 AP3 weapon firing at a space marine. Every hit has a 1 in 3 chance of wounding. A S6 AP5 weapon however, has a 5/6 chance of wounding, but only a 1 in 3 chance of getting through the armour, which is 5 times in 18 attempts. The earlier weapon however would wound 6 times from 18 shots. Clearly you need to evaluate the maths each time, as different guns would yield different results, but that's an illustration of why I look at AP first.

Weapons also have a type, and each will fire a number of shots each shooting phase, which can also change up the effectiveness of a unit (Imagine comparing the 2-shot assault type storm bolter with the rapid fire version of the single bolter. Now try to find me a space marine player that wouldn't want storm bolters on their tactical marines.) Things to watch out for here are combinations of weapons and unit types that clash. Not all units are really designed to use the weapons they are capable of carrying. Not make sense to you? No, it doesn't to me either but for some reason it happens. Example time - Dark Eldar Scourges are a very mobile shooting unit, with the jump infantry type and so are able to move 12" in the movement phase to make sure they can apply their firepower where it's needed. They are also able to take 4 dark lances in a unit of 5 models, however the dark lance is a heavy weapon and so if the unit moves they can only fire snapshots. Hmmm, not sure on the justification for that one Games designers!

Some weapon swill inevitably be better against certain targets than others. A bolter for example is pretty useless against tanks because it lacks the strength to penetrate their armour, whereas a lascannon is ideal anti-tank firepower, but not much cop against a horde of 50+ orks because it lacks the necessary rate of fire.

So for shooting units, we've looked at their profile to gain an insight into how good they actually are at shooting, then evaluated their mobility, and finally their guns. Throwing all that into the bubbling cauldron of assessment you should be able to figure out what each unit is capable of, and more importantly, what it's capable against. That's when I want to introduce the concept of synergy.

I did a few articles a while back on this topic, and used it as the basis for a codex review, though I've talked about it rarely since then.

The concept of synergy is about maximising the output of a unit's damage output against a particular target. Synergy and Flexibility are two ends of the sliding scale of a unit's focus. Synergy is where all the models in a unit carry weapons that are optimised against a particular target. An example would be a marine tactical squad all armed with bolters (or a devastator squad with bolters and a heavy bolter). Such squads are designed for a single purpose and are therefore highly synergistic. They are not however very flexible. Introduction of a meltagun and multi melta to the tactical squad for example reduces its potential damage output against its main targets (light infantry). Such weapons increase a unit's flexibility however against a variety of targets, as they can now engage not only infantry, but vehicles as well. Assessment of the unit's strength therefore must include an assessment of its synergy options, and its flexibility, particularly in cases where you don't necessarily know what you're going to be facing.

I've already touched on mobility as an assessment criteria, and let's expand on that a little more in relation to the concepts of flexibility and synergy explored above.

In basic terms, the more mobile a unit (and your army as a whole) is, the more synergistic you can afford to be in your equipping of squads and therefore you can take this into account in assessing their strength (effectively, if you can specialise the purpose of a squad then you can assess it as being stronger than if your army requires squads to be flexible). I took this very much to the extreme when I designed my Dark Eldar army, and limited the occasions when I mixed weapon types and purposes within a unit. This left me with very focused squads optimised for a particular role, but the army as a whole did not suffer because not only were there several of each type, but each one individually was mobile enough to be able to apply its firepower where I needed it, redeploying rapidly to do so if necessary.

That's pretty much everything for shooty units, so in conclusion, when assessing their strength, we look at how good they are at shooting, what they can shoot with and the damage it does, then compare that with other units in the codex that fulfill the same role. We then look at their mobility to understand how they apply that firepower, and how specialised they are able to be based on other units in the army. Remember that when writing a list we need to assess several types of threat and therefore you can't just bring a single type of shooty unit and expect to win the game, unless the other threats are ably dealt with by your combat options (really not a good idea - try to have answers to all threats with both shooting and combat if you can - though some armies as a whole specialise in a particular role, I'm looking at you, Tau).

Isn't that neat, that leads us nicely into looking at the effectiveness of combat units. Honestly, sometimes I surprise myself at how well I'm transitioning between topics.

Combat in 40k is often much more decisive than shooting (unless one of two instances happens - 1, you're not equipped to break through the armour the enemy is wearing, or 2, you're up against a numerous, fearless, enemy) but, it's also much more difficult to initiate in a meaningful way.

So, how do we assess the combat strength of a unit? It's going to take a bit more thought than shooting certainly, since not only do you have the damage potential of the unit to consider, you also need to take into account its mobility to get into a situation where it is actually able to charge, its resilience in order to be an effective force once it is in a position to charge, and its ability to resist its opponent once it is in combat.

So, what makes a good combat unit?
It may have escaped your notice, but if you check the main rulebook, you'll see that hitting someone in combat is not as easy as shooting them in the face, you'll never be able to hit anyone on a 2+, and they'll have to be pretty damn awful to need a 6+ to hit you. 3+ to hit is therefore what you're looking for here, though thankfully against the majority of opponents you'll only need to be WS5 to do so. Anything WS5 or above is pretty good then, especially if it's on a unit-wide basis rather than restricted to individual models (where high WS values are much more common). We then need to look at the combination of weapons the unit carries. As with shooting, AP is probably more important than S here, though any weapons that increase the S of the bearer will make a big difference.

There are a few key basics that we need to look at here first though, before we get to the detail of weapons. We've already touched upon having a higher weapon skill than your opponent and here's an example to show you just why that makes such a big difference. Let's look at a very average, if not poor assault option, the space marine assault squad (I know, the irony!).

A full space marine assault squad on the charge brings 30 attacks against most opponents. Against an opponent of equal weapon skill, we'll get 15 hits. Against WS3 that increases to 20, fully 33% more hits than before, which makes a huge difference when it comes to causing wounds.

Next up in the 'essential' category for a good assault unit is having high initiative or being equipped with or having the option for assault grenades. Seems reasonable wouldn't you say? It's more than that, because without them it's quite possible your target will have the opportunity to reduce your numbers before you get to strike, and a big part of being an effective combat unit is doing enough damage on the charge to prevent your opponent from being able to recover. As I said, combat tends to be decisive when done right, and neutralising your opponents response is a big part of that, because it maximises your combat resolution to force those all important morale checks with big modifiers.

Next up therefore we want to look at the actual weapons you carry that do the damage. As I mentioned earlier, AP is a big factor in this one, but so is the number of attacks you can bring to bear. Some combat units can be effective through a high number of high strength attacks with poor AP, others work because of a lesser number of strikes but with good AP. There are no easy ways around this, you'll need to look at a lot of things to figure out if the weapon is a good one. As I mentioned earlier though, I consider the space marine assault squad a really poor example of an assault unit - three attacks each on the charge is not a high number (especially if you charge a unit with defensive grenades, which will reduce you to two) and with only a slightly above average strength and no AP, they have little to recommend them beyond the option to equip the sergeant with a better weapon.

For me to consider something as a good combat unit therefore, I'm looking for either a high number of attacks (3-4 base not including the charge bonus) preferably combined with a good strength of 4 or more, or a weapon that's going to make a lesser number of attacks count by cutting through armour (at worst, AP3, the prevalence of power armour in the game means that unless you know what opponent you'll be facing beforehand a good combat unit needs to threaten power armoured squads).

There is a second type of combat unit, albeit a much rarer one, that's usually reserved as a secondary function, and that's anti vehicle combat. They're rarer because usually getting that close to a vehicle means it's had at least two turns to threaten you, so you'd better be pretty resilient to try it, but these units usually bring something like melta bombs to give a good chance of penetrating armour, or the haywire rule is usually better, as it really cripples vehicles without threat of being hurt in an explosion.

Key things to remember therefore when assessing your combat units.
1. Delivery method - do they have a reliable way of getting into combat relatively unscathed?
2. Do they bring a high number of attacks, or a decent number of armour piercing attacks?
3. Are they going to do enough damage when they charge to neutralise any response?

If you've got a solid, positive answer to each of those questions then you've got a decent combat unit.

Wow, what a wall of text, apologies for that! Still, sometimes you just can't say some thing in brief.

What's next in line for the list building thread then? I think probably formations,  force organisation charts and unbound.

Of course if you good people have any better ideas then please let me know in the comments section below.