11 Feb 2013

L2E's WH40K; Basics for a Beginner

Hey guys, Learn2Eel here! 

It's O'Shavah!
I'm here today to discuss starting new armies and how the potential cost and challenge can be mitigated through considered and in-depth study of the main rulebook and the codex pertaining to your chosen army. Obviously, building up a new army and taking to the field of battle poses many challenges - how do I write up an army list, which units should I take, how do I make this unit work, etc, etc? Ultimately, the decisions you make are never going to be easy - understanding a new army requires both patience and tactical application - traits which are not easily acquired, especially for one new to war-gaming. This is where I feel my experience with starting multiple new forces, and in particular the Tyranid swarm, will be a useful tool for any budding war-gamer.

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Selecting an Army - What Appeals to you?
This is the first step to building a mighty force, and will usually be the most difficult step. As a budding hobbyist myself, I would recommend that you go with the army that is the most visually appealing to you - whether it is the style of the models themselves, the way they are painted, or even the opportunities to add your own personal touch through conversions and scratch-building. If the answer is not immediately obvious, ask yourself these three questions;

* What kind of theme do I want? Do I want lithe and graceful models that seemingly dance in stark colors on the battlefield, or a more refined, baroque aesthetic with dulled colors to match the setting of grim, bloody war?
* If I were to project myself onto the battlefield, to experience the valor, the heroism, the terror, the rending of flesh - who would I be? A cold and merciless tyrant? A noble and dedicated warrior standing amongst other men and women? An empty shell of what was once a living being? Or a mindless predator, given voice and purpose by an unknowable power?
* Could you see yourself spending countless hours working on this single army, adapting them to your ideals and tastes? Possessing the time, effort, skill and, most importantly, dedication to make the dream - the vision - of an army into reality?

What you will find is likely to happen is that you will select a handful of different armies that have sufficiently caught your interest - the next step is how willing you are to invest in making the army work on the tabletop, if indeed that is your prerogative. This is not chess - the boundaries and strategies are not so clearly defined and balanced against each other. This is a massive game spanning over a dozen different armies - all with their own unique approaches to dominating the battlefield. Though no single army is far and away better than the rest, there do exist small imbalances between each book - mostly mitigated by the choices taken in each force. In that sense, my advice for this stage is based solely on what you want from your army - are you concerned more-so with victory, or would you be satisfied merely with having fun; taking losses and wins in your stride?

If you are interested in the former, I would recommend seeking out a guide on how to write an army list for each race you have selected - whether through our own extensive tutorials or other hobbyists and local game store owners. Though you may not be able to determine which is the more 'competitive' army list at this stage, posting online or communing with other war-gamers should provide you with ample feedback. This will require that you read through the main rulebook and the codices you are looking at extensively.

If the latter is more to your liking, have a brief look at each codex and write up some army lists comprising models that you would be interesting in using from those ranges - making sure to stay within the limits of the codex. If you find one army accommodates your tastes more than the others, I would recommend choosing that one - what good is an army if you can't play with the models you find most aesthetically pleasing?

The last aspect I will cover is cost and time - the stark truth is that the hobby is a significant investment, and some armies may be more suited to your tastes than others. For example, Grey Knights are usually the most cost-effective army you can buy - they function as a small, elite force in the game and require very few models to play. Fortunately, they will also be quite competitive, regardless of what units you choose to field. This is in great contrast to an army such as the Tyranids, who generally work in far larger, more expensive armies - they are aptly named the 'Swarm'. Unlike Grey Knights, Tyranids are a challenging army to master - and some of their units, despite how cool they may be, simply aren't as good on the table-top as their counterparts. This is solely up to you - how much are you willing to invest into an army? 

Writing an Army List - The Basics

Assuming you have chosen an army to work with and are familiar with both the rulebook and the codex, we come to the next big step - writing an army list, ideally at a 1500 points limit. This is the best way to refine your tastes and really begin developing an identity for your army. This is hard to do and ultimately you will likely never be fully satisfied with what you come up with - with so many options and tactical applications to consider, you will likely find that each 'competitive' unit you find is quickly replaced by another within the space of hours or days. If you are more invested in using the units you find visually striking, this won't come into play as much. Here are some core steps to get you started and give you an idea on how to develop a successful army template;

* The role of a unit - Looking at the profile of any given unit, you should be able to determine its role, based principally upon its statistics, wargear, special rules and options. As an example of this approach, I've chosen to highlight the humble Khorne Berzerker from Codex: Chaos Space Marines. Notably, for a Space Marine, a Khorne Berzerker has a higher Weapon Skill than usual, and lacks a bolter. In addition to this, the Berzerker has a smattering of special rules designed to increase his or her combat effectiveness; Fearless, Furious Charge, Rage, and Counter-Attack. As is quite obvious, a Khorne Berzerker is suited to melee combat, and not ranged combat. In contrast, a Havoc from the same codex, lacking those special rules, wielding a bolter instead and having access to many different ranged weapons, is far better suited to firepower rather than brute strength. Apply this approach to each unit you study, and you should quickly deduce how they would fit into your army.

* The effectiveness of a unit - This is an extension of the previous step, as it requires you to judge how effective a particular unit is compared to its peers, whether through the codex itself or in other army books. Some units inevitably share the same basic role as others, though with their own differing strengths and weaknesses that make them unique. A great indicator of this is the difference between a Codex: Space Marines Whirlwind and a Thunderfire Cannon. Both provide long-range anti-infantry firepower, geared primarily at inflicting severe casualties on weaker infantry or disorienting tougher units. The Whirlwind is cheaper by a small margin, but a Thunderfire Cannon is more durable, has a greater range and puts out more shots. Generally, the Thunderfire Cannon is considered to be the more effective option, though it is not always so obvious. A good way to judge effectiveness is using simple mathematics; work out how each unit performs against multiple examples of units they are intended to target, and how well they absorb inevitable punishment. Use averages as well as random dice rolls to validate your opinions - though I don't think this is the best way to do it, it is an easy and quick method that can give you a good idea of what works. Remember though that you can never be prepared for everything in Warhammer 40000 - the unit you found to be less effective in every case you tested may end up saving you against a new threat!

* The application of a unit - Some units, though they are largely the same at first glance, can have very different effects on a game. An example of this would be a comparison between a Codex: Imperial Guard Basilisk and a Colossus. They share a similar role - providing incredibly long-ranged firepower. Commonly, both fire at large squads of tough enemy infantry - such as Space Marines, of which both units are deadly in this way. The differences become more pronounced on closer inspection - a Basilisks' main weapon has a much higher strength, and is thus far deadlier against vehicles. A Colossus, on the other hand, ignores cover saves that would usually be the only defense against the shells of a Basilisk - making it much more imposing to infantry. When you study these two units, you should think of what your army needs - do you feel vehicles are a worry for you? Or are you more concerned with the multitudes of tough infantry Space Marine armies can field?

* Redundancy - Though it is not always necessary, having multiples of the same unit is the best way to increase their effectiveness - worried about tanks? Instead of taking just one Codex: Dark Angels Devastator squad to suit your needs, take a second and kit them out similarly so that you can maximise the damage each unit does and minimise the risks of either being destroyed. Redundancy in an army is one of the best ways to capitalize on the strengths of each unit, and leave few weaknesses in your army; as good as variety can be, taking too many dissimilar units will leave your army list vulnerable to exploitation by certain elements. Having multiple avenues to deal with every possible threat is absolutely a pivotal aspect of competitive army-list building.

Combine these steps and you should be well on your way to writing a good, balanced army list - but always remember to judge a unit based on how it will fit into your army! A Thunderfire Cannon may be the logical choice over a Whirlwind, but not if your army is highly mobile and must reposition rapidly to engage new targets. This is why you should never judge a unit based solely on face value - application in an actual game is something you can never predict with great accuracy. Whilst a Heldrake from Codex: Chaos Space Marines may seem like an obvious choice in a competitive army, it doesn't work well with certain army builds - and you must keep this broad idea in mind when making any kind of army.

War-Gaming - Basic Tips

The hardest part about war-gaming is winning it on the field - tactics, dice rolls and strategy are the big players here, and no matter how well designed and balanced your army list is, it can prove to mean little once you actually start playing. The reason for this is that your opponent will usually share very similar concepts to those you applied to create a competitive army - they will be as prepared - if not more - for any fight as you will be. Though luck plays a significant part in determining the outcome of the game, the keystones to victory, or defeat, are built on how you react to your opponent, and formulating an appropriate plan to succeed in the mission. I feel the best advice for any beginner, whether to the game in general or a codex, can be summarised best as;

* Deployment - This can make or break the game for you. If you are going first, you must consider how your opponent will react to you, and plan accordingly. A smart opponent won't put their units where you want them, because they have the advantage of reacting to what you do. Often, there may not be much they can do to mitigate your first turn, but they will do their best to reduce any potential damage as much as possible. Also, you must be wary of your opponent Seizing the Initiative - the table-top equivalent of a feint. In that sense, deploying smartly can be difficult - generally, you should deploy to take full advantage of your first turn by setting your long-range units up where they can see most of the board, and placing your other units where they can more easily go for objectives. If you are going second, you get the distinct advantage of reacting to every move your opponent made - you also get the last turn, so to speak, and if you Seize the Initiative, you can severely ruin your opponents' plan. In your first few games, going second may even be preferable to help you learn just how to effectively deploy against particular threats.

* Target Saturation - This is partially determined by your army list, but smart deployment also plays a big role. The idea is providing a wide range of targets for your opponent that they are forced to make tough decisions; either focus-firing on one unit at a time (the smart play) or spreading their firepower thin (a bad move). Regardless of how your opponent reacts, it is a victory for you - whilst they focus much of their firepower on one unit, they leave the rest of your army untouched to move up and cause havoc. Conversely, it can prove to be a strong psychological attack on your opponent - you'll know it was successful if they spread their attack, crippling some units partially but doing little real damage. Force your opponent to fire at an obvious target so that your more important units, such as scoring Troops, can get to where they need to be, and you will be setting yourself up for a good game.

* Target Priority - As the counter-point to target saturation, target priority is equally important for you - the ability to quickly and effectively deduce what is the most prominent threat to your army, either in that game-turn or towards the crunch at the end of the game. Sacrificial units which can do a lot of damage if left unattended, such as Tyranid Hormagaunts, must be appropriately dealt with in the context of the game; as mentioned above, spreading your firepower too much is a sure-fire way to earn a crushing defeat. Heavy-hitters, such as a Codex: Eldar Wraithlord, can't be ignored either - but in this case, they are so tremendously difficult to kill that you need to be aware not to waste shooting that will do minimal damage to them. Generally, the deadlier the unit, the more you need to prioritize its' death, but the speed and firepower of that unit must be considered; a Codex: Grey Knights Dreadknight moving up on foot can be ignored for most of the game, but not if it has a Personal Teleporter. Similarly, a Codex: Space Marines Vindicator is a very serious threat if it gets close, and should be dealt with accordingly; but if a Predator is devastating your forces from afar, it may be more prudent to deal with that first. This is not easily taught - you need to be very aware of how much of an immediate threat something is to your army, and deal with it accordingly. Remember also to use the right tools for the right job, otherwise, you are just wasting your time.

* Reaction - No matter how much research you do, or how developed your skills as a general are, there will always be unforeseen circumstances - times when things do not go according to plan, or unfamiliar units or effects make their presence known. The key to being a great tactician is adapting your tactics on the fly, and knowing the weaknesses of your opponent in conjunction with your own strengths. The first time a Codex: Daemons Flamers unit appears before your eyes may be quite terrifying, as they are well capable of incinerating an entire unit without rebuttal. This is where you must carefully study the abilities of the Flamers of Tzeentch, and formulate an effective plan to counter them; though their profile, at first glance, indicates they are weak in close combat, assaulting them is a terrible idea due to Overwatch. Running away from them does not work either as they are Jump Infantry and have access to a long-range weapon as well. Don't pepper them with lascannons, hoping for Instant Death, as they all have the Eternal Warrior special rule. The best way to deal with them is realize their main weakness; a Toughness of four, two Wounds, and only a 5+ invulnerable save. Mass-fire them down with bolters or their equivalents and that is one nasty unit dealt with. The key is to not panic, regardless of the situation; carefully plan your movements, and pick your targets wisely.

* Focus -Make sure that you formulate a strategy for the battle, one that is malleable, but still maintains' a core, achievable goal. This is generally based on the mission at hand, and how you view the battle proceeding if all goes according to plan. For example, in Mission 6 - the Relic - contesting the objective in the centre of the board is key to either victory, or at least forcing a draw. You need to keep the objective in mind throughout the game, though it may not be an immediate issue as you strive to deal with other units that could contest it - wiping your opponents' scoring units out is always a good strategy. Be mindful to not forget to go for the objective at the best time - a last turn push for the objective is usually risky, as your opponent will likely try the same tactic and attempt to stop you. Keep it in the back of your mind, but don't over-state it - a good player needs to be most mindful of each current turn, but know to plan in advance at every moment. This can be taxing, but it will help you immensely.

Keep these key principles in mind, and your first couple of games will not be nearly as imposing as you may have expected. The best way to learn, however, is first-hand experience - to get a feel of the game, and to learn the true depths of the system.

The Tabletop - Using your Army

There are many armies in this game, and all have their own range of play-styles; each codex tends to have a unique feel or theme to them, one which you can adapt or choose to ignore. In general though, no two armies will ever play exactly alike, and knowing how to capitalise on the advantages of your army, as well as minimise its disadvantages, will be paramount to becoming a good player with them. To highlight this, I have elected to share my experiences with a newly started Tyranid army, including a full army list for a standard 1500 point game, and insight into how I formulated the list through the eyes of a newcomer.

In all the years I have been a hobbyist, no race has appealed to me quite like the Tyranids have - a conglomerate of many species, all designed - not born - to be the ultimate predators. Their models are arguably the most unique in Warhammer 40000, with an entirely-flesh based design - meaning no vehicles - and obvious nods to both the Zerg from Starcraft and Xenomorphs from Alien. With the resources available to start a new army, the Tyranids were always the logical choice - competing with the very powerful Necrons, the Tyranids won out on both style and the belief that I could make a good army list.

With my Tyranid army, I wanted to build a competitive core for a force based around powerful support abilities as well as tough units as opposed to unrelenting firepower. In 6th Edition Warhammer 40000, Troops - as your primary scoring and denial units - are more important than ever and I found that investing a significant chunk of my army into those slots would be a good way to prepare for any mission type. Though this is especially important with Tyranids, as a horde army where much of their staying power lies in that same Force Organization slot, you can apply this methodology to almost any army in the game.

The core of your army will usually be composed of your Troops and HQs, as well as a few units which you simply can't leave home without (whether for competitive play or your sensory pleasure). Before starting my Tyranid army, I looked at two main units in the codex based on the criteria above to form a strong core; Tyranid Warriors, and Tervigons. Generally, each works in almost any army list, particularly the latter - their support abilities heavily outweigh their offensive capabilities. I scrutinized each unit; Warriors have some serious weaknesses in the current meta-game, and are quite expensive for what they offer. Tervigons, on the other hand, are under-priced and over-weight monstrous creatures that create more scoring units (the only unit in the game that I know of), provide more support abilities through psychic powers, and are much, much harder to kill. Tervigons also work very well with a unit I was anxious to field - Termagants, the critters that Tervigons spawn. In that sense, they won in almost every way for me. From there, I looked at adding some HQs to my army, what with my Troops well sorted; the Flying Hive Tyrant was my initial pick, though the Swarmlord also crept into my mind. Eventually, with some cool conversion ideas in mind, the core of my army was settled;

Hive Tyrant w/ wings, two twin-linked brain-leech devourers - 260 (Warlord)

Tervigon w/ crushing claws, catalyst, toxin sacs - 210
Tervigon w/ crushing claws, catalyst, toxin sacs - 210
Tervigon w/ crushing claws, catalyst, toxin sacs - 210
Termagants (10) - 50
Termagants (10) - 50
Termagants (10) - 50

This left me with 460 points to spend, which was a pretty large number. I looked at what was lacking in the army - notably, backup for the Hive Tyrant, and ranged anti-tank against higher armored vehicles. With the idea of redundancy in mind, I eventually settled on adding in another Hive Tyrant identical to the first one, and added four Hive Guard - premier tank-hunters - to the army. This left me with a nice, competitive 1500 point army list based around mobility and presenting too many targets for an opponent at once.

Hive Tyrant w/ wings, two twin-linked brain-leech devourers - 260 (Warlord)
Hive Tyrant w/ wings, two twin-linked brain-leech devourers - 260

Hive Guard (2) - 100
Hive Guard (2) - 100

Tervigon w/ crushing claws, catalyst, toxin sacs - 210
Tervigon w/ crushing claws, catalyst, toxin sacs - 210
Tervigon w/ crushing claws, catalyst, toxin sacs - 210
Termagants (10) - 50
Termagants (10) - 50
Termagants (10) - 50

I'm bi-winning.
To date, I have attained a sizable collection of Tyranids and have all but four of the models on this army list - the Hive Guard. To replace them I have been using a stock Trygon - a fast, deadly monster that is usually an opponents' biggest target. So far, it has worked exceedingly well - I am to this day unbeaten with the Tyranids of Hive Fleet Kraken. It has been based mostly around strong army-list writing and a key understanding of the basic mechanics of the game - my army abuses target saturation like few others, and I am very adept at identifying the biggest threats to my army and the best units to deal with them. Against a pair of Whirlwinds, my Hive Tyrants are strategically placed to destroy them in the first or second turn, minimizing the damage to my ironically important cannon-fodder Termagants. When faced with a deep-striking assault unit, I make sure to surround my Tervigons with Termagants - a tactic called "bubble-wrapping" - to minimise any damage and prevent them from being locked up in a dangerous combat. I then swarm them with Termagants and watch the oh so literal cries spew forth. I have learned that there is a way to deal with every threat, regardless of the circumstances.

In Closing

I would like to thank you all for reading this beginners' guide, and acknowledge the hard work of war-gamers everywhere - your passion and dedication are what drive the hobby!
Hopefully the insights I have provided here will be of use to any budding gamer that is interested in starting up a Tyranid army, or even any new force!
As always feel free to leave us a comment, or send us a message on facebook - if you have any critiques, idea's or questions you'd like answered we will happily get back to you as soon as we can.

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