BATTLE BROS is the ongoing biweekly saga where Drew (PantsOptional) teaches his brother Chris (head58) how to play Warhammer 40K. Who are they and how did they come to be? Check out parts I, II, III, and IV here.
Meet the Battle Bros
The older of the two brothers, but newer to the game. Learning to play Iron Hands.
The younger brother, holding his brother’s hand through this terrible ordeal.
CHRIS: Okay, we’re back, your favorite (?) brothers stumbling blindly through learning how to play 40k from the ground up. I’m Chris, the older brother who is just getting into the game. Over there is Drew, my sherpa into the world of throwing money, time, and self-esteem into a deep dark hole from which there is no escape.
Last time I threw a couple ill-conceived lists at the wall to see what stuck. Surprising both of us, they weren’t terrible! Between the feedback Drew gave me last week and a very timely article by Goonhammer dot com’s own James “One_Wing” Grover I think I’m starting to get a better idea of the philosophy behind putting a list together. This doesn’t mean I’ll pilot that list any better but it’s a start.
This time we’re moving on to what to do with all these little plastic/pewter/resin dollies once I have them glued together and/or painted – actual (theoretical) gameplay! Enlighten me, young master, on the art of “slamming hams.”
DREW: Starting off, we have the three ways to play the game, and these are really just options to figure out what you should bring to the table and what kind of missions you’ll play. They all use the same core rules, which you should have read by now especially since they’re free online.
The first way to play is Open Play, which basically means that you can bring any models that you like to the table. They don’t have to have a force organization or even come from the same faction. Want to bring a Hive Tyrant leading a squad of Primaris Intercessors alongside Plaguebearers? This is where you can do that, allegedly; I haven’t heard of anyone over the age of ten doing this in reality.
CHRIS: Open Play offends me to the core. “Just play with whatever?” Sure, why not run around in the back yard and pretend we’re happy puppies in the kingdom of YummyFun, threatened by mean Lake Ogres who want to steal our cupcakes, but we have magical genies who are our best friends and can grant any wish we make!
DREW: The only reason we’re not adventuring in the land of YummyFun is because of this quarantine – and it’s a duchy, not a kingdom, thank you very much. Also thank you for giving me my next D&D campaign setting.
That is exactly how I expected you to react to Open. Maybe I didn’t expect you to use those exact words, but I absolutely knew that once you read those words you would get a serious case of Malört face. I remember when they first introduced this concept with the release of Age of Sigmar and the only thing more roundly mocked than this was the weird little rules where you got a bonus for pretending to be a horse or furiously cranking it while staring into your opponent’s eyes without blinking. Or both. Look, I don’t judge your weeknights.
Let’s move on to Narrative Play. At its core, Narrative is a way to tell a story through a battle. Depending on the mission setup, this might mean that you’re trying to illustrate a type of battle like an invasion from orbit or a siege against a base, or it might mean that you’re trying to recreate a very specific battle
CHRIS: Narrative Play sounds totally like my wheelhouse. I love love love quirky little scenario rules and interactive features. The special rules like Spotters and Concealed Deployment, the asymmetry, heck even interesting deployment zones are all very appealing. Throw in telling an actual story with the mission, or better yet chaining these missions together into a campaign, and I am all in!
The most mini gaming experience I had previously was in Warmachine, and the thing that disappointed me the most about that game [pause for laughter] were the scenarios. They release an annual packet of tournament scenarios, six to twelve of them or so, and they’re all samey-samey. They have flags and zones to contest in varied arrangements and combinations, but there’s no story to them. Why am I trying to get all my steampunk not-Russians into this 12” circle and hold it? What’s the significance of this flag? Next game is the same, but the zone is a rectangle! There’s never any change in deployment zones – always 7” from your edge of the table. There was one game variant where they did something like “defender deploys in the middle of the board, attackers come in from the sides” but I think that was too spicy or something and it never popped up again.
DREW: Okay, you say all of this, and I get where you’re coming from, but I know you. See, you think you’re on the express train to Fun City, but what you don’t know is that just up ahead the bridge is out and the train is about to plunge directly into Bullshit Canyon. Let me take a moment now to savor the flavor of your growing apprehension because I am about to dash all these hopes for you.
CHRIS: HOORAY! I was getting very uncomfortable with these unfamiliar feelings of “optimism” and “hope.”
DREW: Narrative Play doesn’t use points. Instead, it uses Power Ratings for units, which add up to a Power Level for the army as a whole. Technically, Open Play also uses this system, which was a real surprise to me as I didn’t even think they bothered to use rules in Open.
Power Rating is an extremely loose average of the value of a unit which doesn’t include the value of weapons or most wargear. For example, a Space Marines Captain has a Power Rating of 5. That’s the same value whether you outfit him with a bolt pistol and a chainsword or a storm shield and thunder hammer – a difference of a full 50 points in Matched Play. To make matters worse, Power Ratings never really get adjusted in the same way that point values get tweaked annually in Chapter Approved.
The missions try to balance it out some by giving an advantage to the player who brings a lower Power Level army, but as you can see it’s entirely possible for that player to bring units that are significantly better and still clock in at the same Power Level or even a lower one. Moreover, the Echoes of War missions don’t even bother touching on balance at all – they’re just “I dunno, one player has Abbadon and the Black Legion and the other one has Calgar and the Ultramarines, they have a beach party adventure” or whatever.
CHRIS: While I am always 100% here for hawt not-quite-Primarch “Playin’ With The Boys” action, what you say here displeases me. Power Rating sounds like GW wanted to completely revamp the whole point cost system and everybody just ignored it. I can definitely see the appeal of a less granular system, but it really necessitates getting rid of any meaningful gear swapping.
DREW: Oh, absolutely. Making a list with Power Levels is dead simple, and it really seems like the ideal way to ease people into the game. That works up until you realize that you showed up to an introductory game with your nephew and brought 150% more points than he did and there’s just no way he can beat you unless you cheat against yourself egregiously. You’re going to have to shell out for ice cream afterward no matter what you do.
All of this aside, there are a lot of cool options out there for Narrative if you’re okay with the two sides not necessarily being balanced. A lot of the Narrative missions are fun scenarios like Narrative Challenge missions which work essentially like any first-person shooter’s Horde Mode, or Linked Games where you connect up matches of 40k, Kill Team, and Apocalypse. You could do all of those and still actually use points, so clearly Narrative is a viable option, just not RAW.
CHRIS: Okay, my dreams for Narrative Play have been dashed. I hope you’re happy. Moving on, Matched Play looks to me to be the official tournament way to play, yes? But if two hypothetical Bros were meeting up at a store or an abandoned meat packing plant or something to play a game, would they just pick one of these and go?
DREW: Is this a trick? Are you trying to lure me into some sort of Highlander situation where you cut off my head in a disused factory to gain my power? Good luck, asshole, you’re gonna get a bunch of loan debt and a weird medical condition that most doctors won’t ever have heard of. Probably also a murder rap.
CHRIS: Being unspeakably stupid is not a “weird medical condition.”
DREW: You could theoretically just “pick one of these play types” but let’s be real. You want to play Open about as much as you want to have open heart surgery without sedation, and you can still taste pencil shavings and regret from what I told you about Narrative. That leaves us with Matched Play, and that’s fine – most players will play Matched no matter what the setting. We didn’t have any other way to play for decades, and between that inertia and the other two options being somewhat lackluster Matched is essentially the default at this point.
To sum up Matched Play real quickly for you: the units, weapons, and wargear all have assigned points values, and you build your Battle-forged army to a points maximum that you’ve agreed on ahead of time. None of this should really be too surprising to you since you built three entire lists this way. What you probably hadn’t encountered before are the two different mission types in Matched.
First up are your Eternal War missions, and they’re your fully self-contained missions with a specific set of laid out objectives which both players can see ahead of time. Then you have Maelstrom of War missions, which revolve around randomly selected Tactical Objectives. The specific mission determines how many Tactical Objectives you generate and your max hand size (you can roll on a chart, but realistically the deck is much easier), as well as who can achieve those Objectives and even whether or not they’re public knowledge.
CHRIS: These Tactical Objectives, again a lot to keep track of, and in my dotage I don’t have a lot of brain cells to spare. But they look like an interesting way to mix it up from game to game.
DREW: They don’t work great out as written in the core book, but they do definitely shake things up, and they’re not as much to keep track of if you use the cards. I played a lot of Maelstrom in 7th Edition and not as much in 8th yet, but at its core it’s the same premise. You’re going to suddenly draw a card that says “Secure X Objective” and have to hustle a bunch of your units across the board in order to score, then your next card tells you to secure an objective back in the direction that you came from. If you can’t hear the Benny Hill music playing during a Maelstrom mission, you might be doing it wrong.
We also learned almost immediately that you had to set up a few house rules or else you were bound for frustration whenever you drew a “destroy a psyker” card and neither side ever had any psykers. Thankfully, a pretty solid fix came in Chapter Approved 2019 with the Schemes of War setup: before playing the mission, you build a deck of at least 18 cards and use that in your game. You can toss out that “destroy a unit with FLY” against a footslogging Ork army and focus on stuff your army is good at, like shooting Heavy weapons and ignoring the orders of your Primarch.
CHRIS: You know what would have kept Ferrus from getting his head cut off? If he was a full on robot. I’m just saying.
DREW: The Wu-Tang couldn’t have laid it out any clearer and he paid the price for not listening. As an aside, you may see the Open War deck and think they are similar cards. They are not. The Open War system is a random mission generator meant for Open Play that isn’t particularly well balanced. You could use it if you just need to get a quick mission started, but I can’t really recommend it to you in good faith.
CHRIS: Good to know. I saw a pack of them in the extra spiffy Chapter Approved 2019 “Warlord Edition” that I picked up from my shop (it was gathering dust on the shelf and they gave me a great discount, plus I love being disappointed by special edition things. Thanks, George Lucas!). Into the bin they go!
I haven’t read through CA2019 yet, is what’s in that basically the gold standard for what to expect if I pull up to play a random game in a store?
DREW: If you pull up to a store right now and get a game going, something is seriously wrong because that sure as hell is not an essential business, Karen. In general, I would use it for pickup games, since some of the missions in there have gone through some iterations and improvements and the new ones are generally improvements over the core missions. Crusade is probably your best bet since it’s the easiest to conceptualize. Scorched Earth also works well because it’s basically Crusade with a funny hat on.
CHRIS: Here’s a question – how do you organize or keep track of all the stratagems available? The handful of times I played Kill Team it was just overwhelming. I had a bunch of cards that I had to keep track of and remember what benefits each gave, and I was constantly remembering “I have a stratagem for that!” right after it was too late to play the card. Don’t get old, kids. So do you plan ahead and only bring a handful to spend your free CPs on and then kick yourself that you didn’t bring that one edge case strat when you really needed it? Or just suck it up and memorize them? And does anyone actually have cards for strats or do they just scribble them down on the back of a Whatchamacallit wrapper?
DREW: Honestly – and this is just my personal experience – in casual play you can’t keep track of all the stratagems available. Your brain will explode like a cheap Sixties sci-fi robot that tried to think about hu-man emotion or the concept of lies or whatever it was that justified sticking a firecracker inside a spraypainted coffee tin and yelling “ Take one, action!”
Instead, my best advice to you is to remember and keep on hand the core ones that you want to use from your Codex and any supplements that you might use. If you have time and you know what your opponent is bringing, try to check out the ones your opponent is likely to bring into play just so you know what kind of bullshit is about to fly your way. Overall, though, don’t get too hung up on it – you don’t need to waste time or precious mental hard drive space on Stratagems that don’t apply or that you think you’re unlikely to use.
For example, Single-Minded Annihilation is a Tyranid Stratagem that lets a unit shoot twice. Use it on a unit that already throws a lot of shots like 30 Termagants with Devourers and you’ll instinctively kiss your fingers like a cartoon Italian chef on a pizza box. For someone running a Zerg Rush list of all melee all the time it’s as useful as a tissue paper dildo.
CHRIS: This is probably as good a place as any to ask – I’ve seen folks,usually with colorful expletives involved, discussing “seizing” (which I will never, ever spell right on the first try). I see now that this is the First Turn thing on each of the Matched Play missions but my question is: what is this in aid of? Is it just to mix things up so you can’t bring a smaller force and guarantee you always go first?
DREW: Seizing the initiative is weird and kind of always has been. Depending on the mission and the army, the advantage of taking the first turn ranges from “meaningful” to “player two might as well pack up their models and go.” Seizing (or, more critically, not seizing) is theoretically meant to give player two a chance and to make player one think twice about deploying aggressively and trying for an alpha strike.
Ultimately, though, it’s just a single die roll, and that’s never going to balance this situation. There could be some room there for design work to play around with special rules or Stratagems, but there’s only so many ways to tinker with a single die roll which is why we’ve ended up with other ways of addressing the first turn advantage, like Prepared Positions.
Because of all that, we end up with the worst aspect of seizing: it’s one die roll with a lot riding on and therefore a dramatic focal point. You’ve seen gamers. We’re the worst. If there’s one thing we know how to crow about, it’s rolling a specific number on a die like it was a goddamned talent. Think about every insanely boring D&D story that hinges on “and then I rolled a 20!” I don’t know the specific number of times that I’ve heard some absolute strategic genius tell that kind of story about seizing, but frankly one is too many.
CHRIS: That is the complete opposite of YummyFun. Back to the lake with it!
Okay I think I have a grip on what’s happening with missions. I’m spending lots of time on the toilet making lists. And I think I have the basics down. So now let’s get together and throw some space barbies on the table, and write up the glorious battle report for our legions of fans!
Fuck. Right. Global pandemic. That’s really going to throw a wrench into things. Incredibly inconvenient.
So I guess it’s up to our “legions” of “fans”: what do you want to see next? More list analysis? Hobby stuff where I superglue myself to a Repulsor Executioner sprue? Reader mailbag? Stories about when Drew was little like when he painted himself with latex house paint to pretend to be Spider-Man? Let us know in the comments! We’re kind of fucked here!