So, it’s been a month, and the case foam has turned up, and I… sort of still haven’t actually played a game with my Vampire Counts, owing to an outbreak of Real Life, and the deadly West Midlands Man Flu. This is Not Good. I haven’t even written an army list. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about army lists, but haven’t actually gotten one down.
The thing is that I’m not really a fan of pick-up games, or indeed of points matches; in an ideal world some chaps who want to play a game can sit down and discuss scenario, forces and so on beforehand, negotiating the objective and style of play like civilised adults.
For a variety of reasons, some more valid than others, this doesn’t get to happen as often as I’d like, and so sometimes I do actually need to make lists happen. Now I like my lists to reflect the way I imagine my army is, because at heart I’m a little fluffy bunny hoppity-skipping through the forest… but I’m a bunny with a steel core and if you try to run me over, I want you to break your front axle doing it.
I’m really not interested in the fully-optimised top-tier death-machine where we can talk about die roll probabilities to the fifth decimal place, cross-reference our choices with this year’s tournament circuit as a kind of peer review, and generally follow the ancient principle that there are two ways to win a game reliably: win before the other chap can do anything, or stop the other chap doing anything until you’re ready to win. Either way you end up playing with yourself, and that’s not half as much fun as playing with other people.
That said, I don’t like counter-intuitive choices or lists that internally grind under the pressure of poor synergy. I like lists to function smoothly and efficiently, doing what I built them to do, so I can concentrate on tactics and narrative. They don’t have to be reliable, conventional or even good… but they do have to work. Given that I am still trying to be frugal as a lifestyle choice, I also tend to work within the collection I already have rather than rushing out to buy eighteen Vargheists on release date or anything OTT like that.
However, I have been quietly privy to various conversations over on Carpe Noctem, and following Nikephoros’ damn good series on How To Win At Warhammer, as well as the series on Mathamagic at the emergent sithjester blog (go, read, partake, it’s good stuff).
In the course of following these conversations I’ve been hearing a lot of ‘what’s better, this or that’ – Skeletons or Zombies, Black Knights or Grave Guard, shields or weapons, Master Necromancer or Vampire Lord, this Lore of Magic or that, and I’ve spent a lot of time re-iterating the same basic point.
List building is not plug and play. You can’t just pick up a bunch of stuff that’s all good in its own right, jam it together, and expect it to roll shamelessly over all in its path like a big rolling thing. It’s usage and build synergy that make the differences between the units really apparent, and ‘which is best’ can’t be determined purely by mathematics.
You need to think about what the Thing Under Analysis is doing in the context of the whole army (and then use the maths to evaluate which of the Options for the Thing is going to be best for fulfilling that role, so there is a role for number-crunching – it’s just secondary, rather than primary).
For instance, if your Special points are spent on stuff that buffs and units that redirect (Corpse Carts, Fell Bats, Spirit Hosts, Bat Swarms), you’ll be after Core choices that benefit from those buffs and can actually kill things (Ghouls). If your Special points are spent on hammers and anvils, you’ll need chaff, redirectors and support from the Core.
A Skeleton unit can carry a magic banner that helps out their entire side in a multiple combat (providing extra static CR with the War Banner or a WS debuff from Fear with the Screaming Banner), and flanking alongside Skeletons is a safer bet than flanking alongside Zombies, who tend to die in droves and consequently drag down the overall combat resolution of Team Undead. However, that Zombie unit can easily be beefed up to ludicrous size, flung in and forgotten about. That’s what Zombies are for – not having to worry about besides the odd Invocation. They’re chaff. Similarly to Dire Wolves, they will die, but they will die at such a fashion that the opponent’s combat units are left inconvenienced, and at such a rate that the opponent’s plan has been delayed. Worrying about the mathematical odds of their survival is relevant when deciding how many you need to raise, and that’s basically it.
The same goes for the choice of heroes. I don’t necessarily see the need for a level 4 wizard at all if the army has the Mortis Engine and a level 2 with what used to be called the Staff of Sorcery. In that case of affairs, level 2s are casting and dispelling like much more powerful wizards, and while it’s true that more powerful wizards would be casting obscenely well, perhaps the list will benefit from those expensive magic levels not being bought and points being freed up elsewhere.
In the absence of the Engine my choice of caster is dictated by how well the proposed build can protect that caster. A Master Necromancer is fine if you’re playing the keep-away, if-my-general-is-in-combat-I’m-already-losing game (and if I had one I’d put the +1 to Dispels stick on him). If your list wants everything in combat and doesn’t have more layers than an M.C. Escher painting, might be worth going for the Vampire as he’s going to have to mix it up sooner or later and at least he’ll be able to take care of himself in a scrap. Who’s in charge depends on the list.
Grave Guard or Black Knights? Depends. Does my list want something slow that hits hard reliably and recovers from losses better, or does it want something fast that doesn’t care about obstacles and may not take so many casualties in the first place? Shields or great weapons? Depends, can I make them Always Strike First with Corpse Carts or the Lore of Light? Is there a Shadows wizard in the list who might be handing out Mindrazor and making the sword-and-board Guard more practical?
Lore choice is the most bamboozling of all. What are the crippling weaknesses that need to be overcome? What tactical lacunae exist that can only be addressed by magic? It’s a far cry from ‘just pick Necromancy on everyone and hope for the best’, which is how I used to do it – but fun is being able to do stuff and participate in the game, not lose before you’ve started due to bad strategic choices, and so those questions need answering. Plus, for once, I actually have a decent range and variety of stuff available for my Vampire Counts, so rather than “put everything I own on the table and trust to luck” we’re now in the territory of “select elements from a large collection” – and somewhere I seem to have lost the knack of doing that.
Plus, y’know, I learn somewhat kinaesthetically. It’d be nice to play a small game with an opponent of known calibre so I can actually explore and internalise the eighth edition rules without having to worry about the ins and outs of strategy and tactics. Unfortunately, I don’t know if any of the locals can be trusted with a learning experience (you can explicitly discuss these things with people all you like – then they trounce you and start telling you how to build your list regardless of EVERYTHING YOU JUST SAID about focusing on RULES FIRST TACTICS SECOND – why no, it’s not as if I’ve had bad experiences of this before or anything!). I’d trust Shiny or Dave, but they’re hundreds of miles away – I’d trust Blackheart but he hates eighth edition and I’m not making him play a game he doesn’t enjoy (again) just to amuse me.
I swear, this didn’t used to be so… complicated.