Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Red Arrows 40k - some thoughts on formations and detachments

Greetings all,

having read another post on St Andrew's Wargaming the other day - I noticed once again some dislike for the concept/use of formations in 40k.

I've written before about how the use of formations and detachments is used in terms of constructing an army list, but I refrained at that time from commenting on the principles of formations and detachments over and above the basic rules of using them to make your army list.

This isn't the first time I've seen dislike for formations however, and as someone who likes them (a lot if I'm honest) I thought I'd put forward the argument in favour.

Before anyone gets too opposed to that statement - let me just pre-empt the pained cries by pointing out that I do not think that all formations are good by default - some are disproportionately effective (ok, broken), others less so, and those that grant you free stuff (yes I'm looking at you, double demi company and war convocation in particular) are anathema to the concept of having a game balanced by points values.

Ok, with that off my chest (and hopefully your, hehe) let's get down to the detail shall we?

Formations are great - why?

Well first to get to the detail of this, we need to look at the other options - the CAD and the allied detachment. We can pretty much ignore the second of those for now, since by definition it can't be the main detachment in your army.

CAD is the 'basic', 'default' method by which armies are chosen, 1 HQ, 2 Troops and a mix of other stuff to suit, it imposes no restrictions on the units you can take from your codex, and gives you some pretty neat benefits - troops units gain objective secured, and your warlord can re-roll their warlord trait once.

That's all fine and dandy, but it's also a very 'standard' way of representing a whole army - at smaller game levels every force looks the same, 1 HQ, 2 Troops and a limited amount of other stuff, and every army gets the same things, all troops units become objective secured so to contest an objective you need to use your own troops unit, which probably isn't the best tool for getting rid of the enemy troops unit. As a result, games start to evolve along standard lines - target priority 1 becomes the troops units so that your own troops units can rule the objective game. There's nothing technically wrong about this, but to my mind it does become rather, erm, dull. Added to that, the troops units often become either minimised as a tax, or taken for purposes other than providing the core of your army.
Taking space marines as an example - my friend Ryan (who you've probably heard me mention before and is a fantastic general) uses a CAD as the basis of his marine army. Have a guess how many normal power armoured space marine troops he uses. That's right. 5. And why does he use 5? Because the Imperial Space Marine can only replace a 'normal' space marine, not a scout. The rest of his list is made up of scouts, centurions, thunderfire cannons etc.
It's a massively effective list, but it certainly isn't within the boundaries of what you'd expect to see based on the background of how the space marines go to war as detailed in the picture above!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that troops units in a core formation aren't also looked upon as a tax, but they do at least get a boost to their in-game use, which is usually related to the character of the faction in question.
More examples! From the codices I know of/use - Space Marines become great at taking objectives from people (which is essentially their role as shock troops of the Imperium, they are intended to take things from the enemy). Necrons become more resilient, Tau work brilliantly together to become greater than the sum of their parts etc. All these benefits contribute very much to the character of the force that can take them.
The core formations also often specify a particular unit over and above a battlefield role too, so preventing the misuse of units within those parts of the codex to represent something they aren't supposed to. In the example above, space marine scouts should never, ever, form the 'core' of a fighting force of space marines, even if they are a significant presence on the battlefield - they now have their own formation to represent their modus operandi instead. To better represent this, the demi-company gives the space marine player no choice, they must include a minimum of three tactical squads - scouts are not an option, nor are bike squads in a force with a bike mounted hq (actually both of those types now have their own strike forces as well).

As I touched upon earlier too, the core elements of the factions start to get their own flavour from detachment command benefits - +1 to reanimation protocols rolls for necrons is exceedingly useful, and makes them really tough to shift, but for a space marine from a demi-company, they can pinch objectives out from under their noses with obsec because the necrons don't have it.

Now the only practical way that this can be achieved is by this method. Sure, you could say that no detachments or formations come with special rules, and simply apply those rules at the unit level on their datasheets, but even that isn't as satisfactory, since it prevents you from applying different special rules to different units depending on the formations within which they are taken.
Example time - space marine terminators get different rules depending on how they're chosen. In a 1st company task force, they affect the morale of the enemy, the veterans of the chapter having a demoralising effect on the opposition units. In the strike force ultima however, they gain bonuses to the number of shots they can make, and in strike force ultra, they get different bonuses still. All this lets you tailor the way you play to the benefits you'll receive.
but, but, but - formations break the game!

Do they? Really? Or are you just not ready to deal with them or their effects?

When it was released, the skyhammer annihilation force was roundly cried off as being broken, and would ruin the game for anyone facing it.

How many times do you see it in play, even now it's readily available in the Angels of Death supplement? Seriously, how many times have you played it?

At the other end of the spectrum, Ryan's army that uses a CAD drops a 3-man unit of centurions with a librarian into your face on turn 1, their grav cannons and hurricane bolters shredding just about anything they are likely to face in one way or another, which to my mind is easily as bad as the likelihood of being forced to go to ground and then charged by an assault squad (winners of the prize for least intimidating dedicated close combat unit ever?) if not worse. Actually, that is also a unit that can't be constructed using the demi-company, as there's nowhere for you to get an empty pod that the centurions can deploy from without using a CAD.

As I said at the start, yes there are formations that break well established game rules, and anything that gives you free upgrades or units is something I would not want to use myself, and would strongly discourage being allowed at tournaments - anything (like summoning too) that makes a player feel disadvantaged simply by choice of faction isn't ideal for competitive play because it will be exploited, and tends to limit the amount of fun one player can have even in non-competitive play as well.

ah yes, but formations open your eyes to new possibilities too!

Remember the point about formations making things fluffy? Yes I do too, but then I guess I wrote it so I'm at an advantage.

Nevertheless, it doesn't just apply to armies as a whole, individual units that didn't see the light of day before get included just to gain access to another formation, and that in its own right forces players to think of how they would use those units, and can make them realise that the unit itself is worthwhile even without the formation benefits, and all of that increases the variety of stuff on the tabletop.
Yup, you guessed it, another example! The Raptor Wing formation was shown to me by Ryan (I do talk to other people, honest) and the benefits of auto-arriving storm talons on turn 2 with benefits to damage rolls was too much for me to resist - after all I can fail reserve rolls like a boss! That meant having a landspeeder, and I figured having a pair with typhoon launchers and multi meltas would give me a great mobile threat in a game, as well as adding to the effectiveness of the storm talons. Taking them and using them however meant I also looked more closely at the options for them, and the inclusion in my dusk knights army of a squadron of three with assault cannons and heavy bolters is a direct result of that formation. That squadron is already turning a few heads at my club, with the last three people I've played all being really impressed at just how much damage they can put out.
Don't get me wrong, I'm an early adopter when it comes to new units - I was the only person running centurions at all at my club for several months, I'm the only one with a stormhawk so far (also turning a few heads) and I was amongst the first to bring a storm talon or a stalker too, but formations not only force you to bring and try things you may not have considered just so that you can get access to other stuff you like, they can also throw spanners into the workings of your opponent's plans too, and usually (I accept not always) those things are not game-breaking.

Allies, now there's a thing that can break the game! But that's a topic for another time I think!

Hopefully that stream of consciousness has given you an alternative perspective on the use of formations and their effect on the game - many people may not notice the extra fluffiness they bring despite the occasional dodgy one, but I certainly do, and I hope now you might too.

Give formations a chance, and if you're worries about forgetting the rules - make yourself some unit cards to remind you!

Mike over at also suggested something I think is a pretty good idea - all you bloggers out there (or anyone who wants to chip in on this) - don't stick a comment below. Instead, email it to me a and I'll run them all into a follow up post containing everyone's thoughts on the matter.

Till next time,