Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Warhammer 3rd Edition Tactica I. Being a treatise on army selection, unit purpose and hand to hand combat.

Tactics have something of a bad reputation, it's been said, where Warhammer is concerned at least. I think the modern view of wargaming tactics involves making optimum selection choices pre-game and optimum decisions in the heat of battle based purely on math and logic. This is possibly where retro-gamers/fluff-fans get their distrust of tactics from because it breaks immersion and dilutes or even removes the wondrous variety the hobby has to offer.

There are other aspects to the concept of tactics though, even in simple wargaming terms. From a role-play persective, are we not bound to accept our little fellows might have learnt a thing or two about warfare and that they know the basics? In an environment which sees the hobby compete with family time, work and all those responsibilities that creep up on you over the years, a game can be a somewhat rare occasion. We are beholden to our opponents therefore to give them a challenge and tell the story of the game in a quasi-realistic way. If a game falls flat, who knows how long it could take to put right next time? Despite being a good set of rules for a GM to work with, 3rd or for that matter any edition of Warhammer can be lost in the deployment phase if care isn't taken. That gives a less than satisfactory outcome for both players I suspect. The problem is exacerbated further by the infrequency of play, because we won't build up a body of fresh experience from which to learn and improve ourselves.

The answer may be to talk about tactics, lifting the taboo on the dirty subject we deride so easily!

I has tactics.

Army Selection.

Warhammer has some of it's roots in historical wargaming, believe it or not. No specific periods (beyond 'medievalish') stand out as dominant so we have to draw up our schemes in a world which has weapons from Ancients/Chariot Wars, Early, Mid and High Medieval, Rennaissance, Jacobite, Dark Ages etc. etc. Thankfully, this needn't be as hard as it may sound!

One of the most satisfying ways of selecting an army involves, happily, just getting everything you have ready onto the tabletop. It would be up to a GM to seek a kind of balance in the objectives where none exists in the armies. On the subject of the GM, another, underused, method is to allow yours to choose both army lists in the style of a scenario pack.

Let us suppose though that we are going to make certain choices for ourselves and choose an army that we really want to play with.

I have found my favourite unit, and everything counts in large amounts! Right?

While it may seem as though Warhammer has an enormous amount of varied and chaotic nuances the truth is, if your army is not balanced it will get shredded more often than not. You will find that the most effective unit is four wide and five deep with full command and the most obvious tactic is to run several in a 'line'. To borrow a term from our contemporary comrades, this type of unit has 'Static Combat Resolution', which means it has already scored four before the dice are rolled. Killing four of the enemy (or at least, causing four wounds) is usually very tough indeed. If your unit's SCR is low or nil, you are not going to win this fight very often.

From this we can see the best value combat winner is the humble line regiment, four wide and five deep. Why five deep? Infantry are usually cheap so why not have a spare rank to absorb casualties? Archer units often struggle to kill large amounts of the enemy, their strength lies in chipping off one or two models and removing a pip of SCR. By adding in some insurance you negate your opponents missile fire very cheaply and effectively. Set up in a line with some mobile 'Re-directors' (units that position to spoil the enemies attempts to outflank your line, usually light cavalry or a similar cheap, mobile unit) on the flanks and you have the makings of either a strong defence or attack, depending on the terrain and objectives.

Hand to Hand Combat.

There are two strange discrepancies in 3rd that become relevant now, a unit that would otherwise have ranks will lose them if charged in the flank, unless four of it's models are fighting to the front also. Being engaged on two sides at once actually becomes an advantage. The other thing is that the wording around how to count your standard's bonus is sufficiently woolly that one might argue to claim it even if flank charged, which is not the case in later editions. A lot will depend on how you or your GM adjudicates these matters but it should be noted, SCR is very powerful indeed.

Some units and monsters (Zombie Dragon, I'm looking at you) are so powerful on their own that they can potentially overcome a SCR of four. Again, a ruling will be necessary from your humble GM here, it is usually interpreted that a monster cannot kill more enemy than it is in frontal base to base contact with. This makes it impossible for the monster to overwhelm single wound creatures in a big unit but possible to beat a regiment of creatures with multiple wounds like Beastmen, Chaos Warriors or Fimir. As monster base sizes can be a bit woolly it is doubly important to clarify this point early on! Either way, the high points cost of a monster gifts the title of 'King of the tabletop' to the line regiment, for pure value alone.

Unit Purpose.

So, what happens when you got your line and he got his line and they smack into each other?

Well, a terrible game actually, but there is hope!

Do weaker units have any purpose?

This is where balance comes in. Getting that flank charge is all important, so how do we go about it? The weakest point of the line is either the flank protection units (those re-directors) or the big hole you just blew with your magic phase.

I win, because magic.

Artillery can perform a similar role if you sink enough points into it, but assuming you don't catapult or Vorpal Death-Storm your way to victory, you will want to sweep aside the units protecting your enemies flank and turn to face his now vulnerable line side on. Chariots are excellent for this, as are heavy cavalry units and monsters. Note, read through the rules on pursuing thoroughly, they are complex at first glance but you don't have to follow the beaten flank units off the table if you want to turn your attentions elsewhere. Also, remember that powerful hosts of monsters or ethereals disappear after their first engagement on a 50/50 roll and each subsequent engagement according to the main rules which makes them poor value but the Slaves to Darkness book gets rid of this burden. Allow your GM to make a judgement call if you want to rely on your big guns from time to time!

StD supecedes the orange book, right? ;)

Once the enemy line is compromised, the path is clear to victory. You can eat up their line from either side and if they turn to face this threat you have your own line to bring into play, there will always be an exposed flank somewhere. The important thing to focus on is your unit's purpose. It can do what it's designed to do well, but a flank crusher won't overcome a line regiment by charging it in the front any more than a re-director can make an effective flank crusher. Know what your units are for and play to that purpose.

From here, instead of getting stuck in a cycle of ever more powerful spells and special characters your arms race with your favourite opponent becomes more about tactics. How to effectively run a reserve force? Do I run a line, a wedge of regiments or an inverse V formation? How does the oblique line/refused flank tactic fit in?

In conclusion then...

If you take nothing else away from reading this, remember that SCR rules the battlefield, all units have a purpose (almost to the extent of 'rock, paper, scissors'), selecting your army doesn't mean winning in the shop thanks to a netlist but is important nevertheless and finally the rules are like Swiss cheese, beautiful as they are, they need careful interpreting!

Warhammer 3rd edition became obsolete once, partly because 4th came out in a nice box and all that but partly because a lot of gamers were sick with what it had become. It is important to give your opponent a good time as much as a good thrashing, because you need them!

It's impossible to be exhaustive here, I will throw more Tactica articles out ( Tactica II is up already ) but I hope to start off some conversation that will do more good than I can on my own. So please comment! Captcha is off!

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Three skull chuckers and a Zombie Dragon.

    All your base are belong to us.

    Only joking!

    Great post which makes me feel better about the order I'm putting together for a load of musicians and standard bearers from Front Rank for my (larger than I thought!) Empire Army.

    I think you're right about the importance of line units and the race to turn the flanks - this is also much more interesting than big monsters and magic mowing down your enemy's pride and joy.

    What I really like about Oldhammer though is the oddball situations that arise - animosity, instability, wizards being possessed by Demonic entities and raising large numbers of skeletons in the middle of your line. These can be great levellers!

    Another key part of the game is role-playing how units and monsters would react in various situations. True, you want your opponent to give you a challenge, but deciding how your army reacts to stuff in role adds colour and helps the narrative along, rather than the usual God's eye view unit commanders seem to have otherwise - also a good way of stopping monsters acting in an overtly tactically savvy way that jars with how a wild beast might deport itself upon the field of battle.

    I also really enjoy scenarios which can turn everything on its head - desperate last stands like in Orc's Drift, the ambush scenario we played in Eilnein and the sabotage mission in the Engines of Avalone scenario I wrote that I hope to play some day. In a way you can chuck out some of the more orthodox tactics and be a bit more maverick.

    Having said that, tactics definitely shouldn't be a dirty word in Oldhammer - I am quite keen to get my Empire stuff painted up so I can try out stuff like the oblique line without worrying about my core units stopping along the way for an argument! There must be a frustrated historical gamer in me somewhere ; )

    I must say that part of what I'm looking forward to in our Trolltooth project is trying out such deployment and manoeuvres like the inverse V - as soon as I've spawned enough Rhinomen...

    1. Very astute, you have picked up on virtually all the points I missed out. I have plans to talk about role-play and the God perspective in Tactica II.

      The oddball situations are certainly a big part of the fun, and a big reason not to invest too much of your sense of self esteem in your Warhammer Generalship abilities! On any given day the dice can turn against you!

      The scenario style of gaming is very immersive and narrative driven which is it's strength. I like them because they make you think outside of the box.

    2. Figured you'd be getting round to those points sooner or later - it's through the various games we've played that I've come to appreciate such things!

      I think with me it's every given day that the dice turn against me!

    3. I'd think you were exaggerating, if I hadn't seen the evidence for myself!

  2. Interesting stuff, looking forward to seeing more of these.

    By "full command" do you mean champion, standard and musician? My orcs have never got on with the concept of musicians (don't bring a drum to a sword / mace / axe fight!) but there are some nice models around when I've eventually done enough eBaying and painting to get some dwarves on the table.

    On the multiple attacks / multiple wounds question there's a Q&A in WD 131 (which I dug out last weekend as it has one of the first of the Confrontation articles) where that chap Rick Priestley states that you inflict as many wounds as you roll, whether or not there's enough models in contact to receive them.

    The question's not very helpfully titled "Heroes", so you can just bet there's a rules lawyer somewhere out there that's tried to argue it only applies to heroes, not to monsters. I remember now why I stopped playing Warhammer all those years ago :)

    1. Thanks Paul, glad to have been of service!

      Yes, that's what I meant by the term full command. The musician gives a bonus to manouevres, so it really comes down to your play style when deciding if you need them. If you want to take advantage of the full gamut of manouevres and use them to make your army more effective and mobile as well as making them quicker to react to danger, they are a must have. It is important to be angled right on the charge so as not to 'close the door' after contact by more than 22 degrees (this would leave you unformed and vulnerable) and it's important to be able to respond quickly to situations as they develop. It might be argued either way that Orcs are best played as an undisciplined mob as that's more fun (more on this next Tactica) or that they need the musician more than most due to their poor discipline. I personally suspect that Orcs rather enjoy banging things together to make a loud noise and recommend you use musicians!

      I think that ruling of RP was the intention, despite the lack of clarity on the point in the rules. It is helpful to borrow ideas from later editions as they often indicate what the authors intended at the beginning. In this case, I have found a lot of difference of opinion so although I err (strongly) on the side of RP on this one it is one of those that is worth discussing and listening to your opponent's POV.

      Thanks for contributing!

  3. Glad you got the ball rolling on this. I really need to have a re-read of the 3rd edition rules. I also need to finish getting the house ready for Thanksgiving guests. Argh!

    1. Thanks Sean. I'm sure we'll benefit from pooling our tactical resources, there is nothing worse than having a game go south because your understanding of the rules is a bit rusty!

      Enjoy Thanksgiving, and don't worry too much about the house, just make sure it smells of Turkey and no one will notice any mess!

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  5. Hello! Are there specific rules for the Zombie Dragon in WFB3, or is it just a version of the Dragons in the WFB3 bestiary?

    1. Hi Paul. The Zombie Dragon rules appeared in WD 75 to accompany the release of Tom Meier's miniature. These rules were for 2nd edition but port across very easily because it is designed as a very powerful creature with only an approximate points value. I recommend designing your own special 'Undead' rules for a Dragon stat line from the rulebook you are comfortable with as the published rules are INSANE!!! :D

    2. Heh..."The Zombie Drag on can fly ethereally.Thi s
      works like an instant teleport allowing the
      dragon to move to a new posit ion anywhere on
      the tabletop. at any height band or on the
      ground.The dragon cannot fly and move during
      the same turn, but can fly directly into combat,
      counting as a charge." Wounds 12 :-). 1000points though...

    3. It's a hoot alright. The Zombie Dragon was never updated for 3rd (as far as I know) but fourth has a set of rules in the Undead army book that should be easily retrofitted for 3rd. Those 2nd ed rules work out at about 750 points but are rounded up to 1000 because of the unquantifiable ethereal flight/infinite control rules. If you strip those rules off and lower the wounds to about 6 you have a more interesting creature on your hands for an affordable cost.