Saturday, December 10, 2011

Warmahordes: Gaming The Terrain

Earlier this year, I ran a four-player Warmachine game as a way of saying thanks to my then gaming club for putting up with me for half a year.  The scenario we used was a modified version of the Siege on Fort Lawton from an early No Quarter; one player in the middle, three players around the outside.  There was a lot of talk of lists, and plans, and whether or not the attackers were meant to collaborate in bringing down a far superior defending force, but there was no talk whatsoever about the terrain pieces, which - apart from the big temple in the middle - were placed according to strict rules by the players.  We had three forests for the defender and a collection of buildings, rocks, swamps and one gun emplacement for the attackers.  This is what we ended up with (it's a turn one movement shot for the Cryx, on defence).

Now, when I - the defender - set up my terrain pieces, I deliberately put them between the middle of the enemy deployment zones and the nearest edge of mine.  The idea was to restrict the lines of sight available to the Cygnarans (if they wanted to shoot me, they'd have to spread out and might not be able to concentrate their fire effectively), and the movement options of the Menites (if they wanted to brick up and keep all their buff pieces in range, they'd have to grind through the wood, or go round, leaving some models behind).  Khador, with the long deployment zone at the bottom, could go more or less anywhere, so I slapped a wood in the middle, giving me somewhere to entrench a Ghostly unit that could rush out in any direction toward whatever angle of attack they chose.

I'm not sure anyone else was thinking about the terrain placement in the same way.  Most of the other pieces are between attacking deployment zones, and very few of them actually had any impact on play.  Look at the angle of those rocks on the right - perfect for Long Gunners to squat behind, but angled toward the Khadorans, who are on the same side.  The bottom right emplacement's off in the middle of nowhere, picked by a player who would be moving his 'caster up every turn (he was playing Karchev).  That building on the left, placed by an attacker, is angled outwards, affording more occupation/cover/elevation opportunities to the defender!


This concerns me.  I know that pretty much everyone involved in this game comes from a background of games where terrain placement is frequently arbitrary, random, and concerned more with not providing undue advantages to either player*, but it surprised me that nobody else saw terrain that could be selected and placed by their own fair hand and didn't try to game that for some sort of advantage, or at least denying an advantage to their opponent.

Perhaps it's the age of the scenario.  The current Prime has a far more conventional approach:
Battlefield setup and terrain placement is not a competitive part of the game - players should not strategically place terrain features in a manner that unfairly aids or penalises a specific army.  However, a scenario might dictate doing so to represent an overmatched force defending a village or mountain pass, for example.  In such a scenario, giving the defending army a strong defensive position would be one way to make up for being outclassed by its opponent.
Personally, I much prefer a set of discrete, defined rules that can be gamed to a wispy, wimpy "you really shouldn't do that, you know", so this sort of thing does me nerves up wretched, but it's what I have to work with.  At least it affords the chance to game the terrain for scenario purposes, the great aim of which is to make sure that nobody wins or loses a scenario before it starts**.

As a result of this, terrain gaming is not a broadly available option for tournament play under Steamroller 2011, where terrain pieces are determined by the Tournament Organiser, but there's still one way of doing it; the placement of terrain pieces granted by Theme Force bonuses, which is bound by the following terms and conditions from Steamroller -
Do not place obstructions or rough terrain within normal deployment zone areas.  This does not apply to Advance Deployment areas.
All terrain pieces must be placed at least 3" away from other terrain pieces.  This includes terrain pieces granted by Theme Force bonuses.
Do not place impassable terrain within control zones when playing scenarios that use them.
 - as well as this one, which seems to be the standard for Theme Force terrain:
... place [terrain piece] anywhere within 20" of the back edge of [caster's] deployment zone after terrain has been placed but before either player deploys their army.
A quick flick through the Force books I have to hand reveals access to six permanent terrain pieces which can be accessed in this manner.  To start us off, I'm going to have a quick dekko at the rules properties of these pieces and some potential uses for them, before reverse-engineering some general principles for doing exactly what Prime says you're not supposed to.***

Forest AOEs

Available to: Kaya the Wildborne, Captain Kraye, Grim Angus
Rules properties: Line of sight into forests restricted to 3"; line of sight through forests blocked altogether; rough terrain; concealment.


The fact that they can't be seen through is dynamite, as is the ability for something to stand with its base juuuust over the edge of the AOE and being 'within' the forest, still be able to see out for its own attacks while benefitting from concealment when retaliation comes.  Moving in, shooting, then moving back out in one activation is an option for pieces in all these tier lists - Reeves (with the Chieftain providing Swift Hunter) and Tharn Wolf Riders (Light Cavalry), Kraye's light warjacks with their extra move from counting as Light Cavalry, and Pyg Bushwhackers with Bushwhack - as is just bypassing Line of Sight altogether through innate Hunter, Mage Sight or Cross Country respectively.  Whether you set the forests up upfield (to slow down your enemies) or downfield (to give yourself a safe base to loiter in and shoot out of) will depend largely on how far forward you have to go.  You won't be fitting whole units into 3" or 4" AOEs, though, so if you want a firebase for your Reeves, get ready to use all your forests on that.  Might be worth basing the Hunter solos in there instead.

Shoving melee pieces around is also an option, given that it's easy for any of the three casters to chuck out Pathfinder (Tracker, from the Argus, or Ghostly for Warpwolves from the Pureblood for Kaya; Cross Country again from Grim; Easy Rider for Kraye).  With this option, I'd be tempted to either set the trees up as screens for your melee pieces to lurk behind until it's time to strike, then open up the Hunter/Pathfinder combos and let rip, or to blockade areas where you want the action to happen, knowing that you can press forward through those areas while the enemy may well get bogged down.  It's fairly easy to bypass forests, so I wouldn't count on this, but Kaya's four inch AOEs aren't terribly friendly to enemies who don't have Ghostly, Incorporeal or Pathfinder to hand out.

The Corner Case

Playing Destruction, Demolition or Grind?  Screen the objectives on your side of the board with forests 'twixt them and the enemy.  They'll make your opponent's life that little bit more difficult if they're a faction that has to play by the Line of Sight rules.  Playing The Gauntlet?  Slap one on either side of your box and give the opponent a good reason not to move in there.

Shallow water AOEs

Available to: Blindwater Congregation (non-Themed),  Pirate Queen Skarre
Rules properties: rough terrain; warjacks without Amphibious become stationary when knocked down within the AOE and have to be reactivated by a friendly model moving into base-to-base.  Shaking Off does not apply here...


The Congregation is largely composed of Amphibious models, so the appeal here is creating areas of rough terrain which they can cross and the opponent can't.  Look for wide open spaces that you can drop these in to potentially create bottlenecks - opponents might plough on through but they might go round and bunch up, allowing your Gators to scrobble more of them.  You can also use them to block off part of a scenario objective (since this isn't impassable terrain, you can do that if there's no terrain there already) and slow down the other guy's attempts to reach and capture/contest it.

It's possible for the Cryx to pull this off too - Skarre's tiers allow her access to the Ghost Raiders and the Leviathan-chassis 'jacks, who become a rather scary prospect under Dark Guidance and/or her feat, and can barge cheerfully across the terrain like there's nothing really there.  Another thing that springs to mind is setting up a killing ground for your Revenants and Leviathan-chassis 'jacks guns - keep things slowed down to provide yourself with maybe another turn's shooting.

The Corner Case

Again, looking at where the scenario objectives are and where enemy 'jacks will want to go, but this time setting the AOEs up in places where you can slam, throw, headbutt and otherwise insert the enemy 'jacks in them.  Unlikely that you'll be able to actually pull this off, but people do worry about the 'knocked down in water' effect - that's why you don't see many water features on Warmachine boards.  Use that to your advantage.  Talk it up.  Make people reluctant to put their jacks in a place where they could be thrown or slammed into water... and make sure that those places happen to be places where the 'jacks need to go to play a role in the scenario.

Obstruction AOEs

Available to: Mohsar the Desertwalker
Rules properties: ARM18, single wound, cannot be moved through or climbed onto, +2 DEF against melee attack rolls for models partially obscured from attacker's LOS by the obstruction.  Adds a die to slam damage if a model is slammed into it.


The big thing about these is that they can be destroyed, and it's not fantastically difficult to accomplish.  However, they can be used to soak up an attack that might otherwise be destined for something else, or disrupt your opponent's advance by putting them in the way of a unit that will need to slow down and attack them (or have something else waste its activation on getting rid of them first).  The other option is to set up a little space for something valuable to hide in, but I wouldn't count on any terrain feature that can be removed from play so easily; these strike me as a delaying tactic more than anything.

Wreck markers (one per warjack in the battlegroup)

Available to: Iron Lich Asphyxious, Magnus the Traitor, Kommander Harkevich
Rules properties: large or medium base size, rough terrain, cover (models within 1" whose bases are partially obscured from the attacker's LOS).


All three warcasters will be generating wreck markers larger than their own bases - if I read the rules right, this means that standing in such a wreck obscures LOS to their base from pretty much any direction.  And THAT means that wrecks can be used to set up base stations from which the warcaster or a fragile support solo can operate.

Three essential models enjoy +4 DEF.

Since they aren't actually terrain features, despite being rough terrain, they can be placed within three inches of each other, as long as they're three inches away from proper terrain features.  This makes it possible to create a larger area of rough terrain by jamming all your wrecks together, which can be fun if the opponent doesn't have much Pathfinder, Ghostly or similar to hand out.  Just beware of the rules implications; round bases mean varying reductions in movement depending on the angle at which they're moved across, and I for one haven't the patience for all that mental arithmetic.

Stupid circular bases.

The Corner Case

Asphyxious' Theme force includes a lot of Necrotechs, which means it can very easily include a lot of Scrap Thralls.  While it's enormous fun to set up a Scrap Thrall factory 10" outside your deployment zone and burp out a maximum of eighteen Scrappers in a turn, this involves a) committing Necrotechs, b) being able to roll low numbers on two dice and c) being able to roll high numbers on one die.  There's a lot that can go wrong with this plan, from Necrotechs dying to skill checks failing to all three of your heavy wreck markers generating but one Thrall apiece.  It's not a reliable approach, but it can be hilarious...

5"x3" trenches

Available to: Captain Gunnbjorn, Kommander Strakhov, Major Haley
Rules properties: models completely within a trench template have cover from models not touching the template, and do not suffer blast damage unless the point of origin is in the trench template.  Models completely within trench templates do not block line of sight to or from models not completely within trench templates.


Well.  For starters, you can set up a screen of something that shoots and advance deploys - let's say Trenchers - and then other, longer-ranged shooting pieces, say Cygnar's ranged warjacks behind it.  Both units will shoot what they like without getting in each other's way, and while an enemy with equivalent ranged firepower will go over the Trenchers' heads, melee-focused builds are suddenly in trouble, having to prise their way through the Trenchers before they can get to the gravy in your list.  Oh, and those Trenchers in cover will be benefitting from Deceleration too.  Now imagine setting those Trenchers up in front of an objective you're defending and Digging In, on top of Deceleration.  Basically, eHaley's Trencher infantry become ridiculously hard to shift when they're embedded in the trenches they bring to her Theme List.  Hell, if you wanted to be really cheeky, you could drop a Cyclone into the trench and rejoice at the sight of a high-DEF heavy that mullers infantry with its shooting attacks, doesn't block line of sight to the infantry holed up behind it, and is a ridiculously high-priority target for armies like Cryx who tend to want anything with Covering Fire gone ASAP.  Or have a Lancer in there, safely bunkered while it arcs spells, and then Telekinesis it out when it's time for the Temporal Acceleration assassination run.  I have a terrible envy of eHaley, if you haven't noticed already.  She's almost worth playing Cygnar for.  ALMOST.

Strakhov can pull some of the same tricks with 'jacks, only he'll be using Overrun to move them out of the trench rather than Telekinesis, and enabling Assault Kommandos to deliver a counter-punch out of their trenches since he gives them Pathfinder.  Opinion is divided on Assault Kommandos - as a Cryx player I worry about them, being as they are decent ARM infantry and immune to Corrosion, but most proper Khador players think they're rubbish.  However, Cover and Shield Wall is a nice combination for a shooting unit to have, especially one that can plough out or pull back from their trenches whenever they feel like it.  Slap Sentry on them to be extra cheeky.  Again, the main use for the terrain here is setting up a bunker that makes your infantry ridiculously tough, or drops a big lumbering Khador 'jack out of LOS until you're ready to use it.

Same for Gunnbjorn, but he has a couple of corner cases too. At higher levels of Gunnbjorn's Tier, his beasts will probably be wanting unfettered +2SPD moves on the first turn rather than bunkering up in the trenches; they can move further out than you can place the trench templates, so I'd probably reserve them for infantry unless you have a plan to move 7" and still chuck out a Far Struck Impaler spear... actually, that's not a bad idea.  The Tier bonus is almost redundant for Gunnbjorn, who hands out walls and Cover like they're going out of fashion anyway, but you could create some absolutely hellish terrain networks with a couple of free Trenches and his Rock Wall spell.  In fact, if you wanted to be really cheeky, you could plop down two free Trenches, following the 3" apart rule for placement, and then put Rock Wall between them, to essentially put down a wall of Cover for your guys across, ooh, I don't know, the entire forward edge of a scenario objective?

4" walls (linear obstacles)

Available to: Hoarluk Doomshaper (Shaman), the Harbinger of Menoth, Priestess Feora, Captain Kraye
Rules properties: cover; +2 DEF against melee attack rolls for models partially obscured from attacker's LOS by the wall; models cannot charge over them, nor end movement or be placed atop them.  Adds a die to slam damage if a model is slammed into it.


The singular advantage of the wall is offering a DEF bonus against melee attacks as well, making it a fantastic hiding place for things that are easy to hit and hard to hurt, like Flameguard and Paladins.  I've seen two players set up a wall on the forward edge of their objective in the Gauntlet and then just park up, throwing ineffective ranged attacks across the no-man's-land between their forces.  The Harbinger's Tier list is superb at grabbing and keeping the ground occupied by those walls, considering that she has Martyrdom to restore any Menites that do manage to get themselves perished, and that the Flameguard can contentedly Set Defence themselves behind those walls for an extra +2 DEF against charges, and that the front rank can quite happily poke over the top of the walls too... it's not a particularly dynamic list but if you're expecting to see a lot of point control scenarios, a wall of Flameguard behind a wall of... wall... is somewhat beneficial.  Especially if you have the UA shouting 'Iron Zeal'...  A Harbinger theme list won't be taking the fight to anyone any time soon, but it'll be very, very hard to shift from the ground it occupies, and the terrain plays a big part in making the Flameguard hard to hit as well as hurt.  A good one for those Gauntlets and Kill Boxes where you're taking the ground to deny control points to your opponent and playing for either the draw or the assassination win.

You can also do some cruel things involving literal corner cases.  Set up walls at right angle leaving 3" gap across same.  Place large-based, hard-to-shift model in gap.  Place infantry with ranged attacks behind walls.  Rejoice at the fortress you have built yourself.  Since Doomshaper's Theme involves Janissa Stonetide, you can even do the wall-of-cover-around-an-objective-area thing that Gunnbjorn pulls off, preventing many opponents from charging into an area you control.

For Kraye, the walls provide an "I want you to try and hurt me" option that the forests' outright denial of LOS doesn't offer.  Kraye lists tend to want to stay mobile, and so the suggested placement of walls for him is more one that limits your opponent's counter-charge options and bumps your battlegroup's DEF against shooting in the early turns while you're setting up - although, that said, a Lancer behind a wall is a bit of a devil to shift, for much the same reasons as the Flameguard.

The Corner Case

Feora's are on fire.  The one downside to walls is that people can just move over them, and the Priestess of the Flame addresses that with her customarily straightforward approach.  Very useful in protecting oneself from early-game Advance Deployment bum rushes (I think they call them 'alpha strikes' these days).  Shame you can't place them too far forwards, but at least they stop sneaky Legion embedding themselves too far forward in the early game.

* - except Wood Elves, with their guarantee of a favourable terrain piece in every game.  I hate that rule.  It's outside the normal framework of interaction, there's no way of resisting or countering it, and nobody else does it.  How come Dwarfs don't get to bring a free hill?  Lizardmen a free swamp or river?  Vampire Counts a graveyard?

** - I put list tailoring in the same category.  It's not on for competitive or even casual games, but if you've a specific story you want to tell, you might as well mutually negotiate army lists that ensure the desired type of engagement.  Otherwise you'll find someone turning up with something that breaks the scenario and wins on turn two, which is not anyone's plan when they're setting up a narrative game.  But I digress...

*** - You may have a problem with that... but there are four quite precise rules governing what can be done with this extra terrain, which you are instructed to place (there's no 'you may' in these) rather than a wishy-washy guideline, and that suggests to me that someone, somewhere, was thinking about what could be accomplished with these extra pieces, and what ought to be permitted or prohibited.  Not using them intelligently is selling yourself short in my book, and if you don't like it?  Nobody says you have to use Theme lists.

1 comment:

  1. We always used to dice off for choice of table edge after terrain was placed. I once played a 40K game in a league aginst an Eldar player who wanted very sparce scenery. He had jet bikes, swooping hawks, just lots of mobility. While we were still placing terrain I told him "This gives my marines a big advantage.". He said it was enough terrain and we started. He conceded at the end of his turn 3, and he went first.