Unclehammer: Teaching Better Players, and Making the Next Generation

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Welcome to the first installation of Unclehammer, which is kind of like Dadhammer, but with much more flexibility, free time, hair, driving a two-door car, and having actual disposable income.

 

In this article, I want to take a deeper look into what goes into the creation and introduction of a new Warhammer player, ideally one who is between 8 and 12 years old who has no prior experience with board gaming or the hobby world. I’m going to be breaking my exploration into three major parts for ease of reference, and to group similar lessons and expected difficulties. To test these theories, I worked with an assistant – my 10-year-old nephew, “Lil Eschaton,” who has since become a respectable consumer of 40k lore and models after the last 7 months of building, painting, and practice gaming. Unfortunately, as with many great and good (but not cool and good, not my department) projects, there were some setbacks and failures as well: To my shame, I inadvertently created a new, truly blue Ultramarines player during this process, but I am glad to report that he does have a healthy hatred for all things T’au, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

Before we dive in, let’s cover some important things to remember:

  1. You are (probably) going to be dealing with a literal child. Children are people and have their own interests and insights into both life and the hobby. You will not be reliving your own first steps, but rather acting as a guide for them as they take their own (which will inevitably be different). Think about what you would’ve really wanted when you started out and how to provide that and focus on being the best facilitator and teacher you can be.
  2. There will be tantrums; if you’re unaware of this aspect of dealing with kids of any age, it’s difficult to prepare you for it. Painting is hard, building is hard, and occasionally, losing is hard. Get over yourself. The kid(s) will appreciate it, and you can use any setbacks to build up future experiences.
  3. There’s a pretty good chance it won’t stick, or that the child’s interest will wax or wane based on their mood, energy level, and willingness to play space dolls with an adult on any given day. Be flexible, have some other activities ready to go, and don’t hold the line on the activity just because YOU want to do it. There is no greater way to kill someone’s interest in the hobby – regardless of their age – than to be That Guy, but doubly so with a pre-adolescent. Don’t turn it into a chore.

Without further preamble, let’s dive in.

 

Beginnings and First Steps

This is going to probably be your most exciting and most frustrating time with any young hammer (hamling? hamlet?), probably because they’re going to be at the peak of their excitement, and the nadir of their skill set. This is where the most valuable lessons and the make-or-break point is going to kick in.

There are two ways of bringing in a new player to the fold, so I’m going to start by comparing the benefits and drawbacks of each to set the stage.

1. “Hey You Like Game X, Why Not Try Game Y?”

First, you have the age old “hey, you like board game X, video game Y, wanna see something like it?” approach of introducing the concept of advanced board games to a kid who may have only seen Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders in their lifetime. This is a great way of measuring interest and ability to parse complicated rule sets and multi-part turn systems. Also, if you’re like me, and look after a small kid, or group of kids, on a regular basis; they’re going to get into your stuff and turn your house inside out, and in doing so, will find your hams, among other things. This is a great way of opening the world to a kid, their curiosity is already piqued, and there’s pretty much 0 difficulty to throw together a quick-play rule set to demonstrate the game aspect.

Additionally, this represents probably the best way of evaluating interest for the new player. Maybe send them home with a codex (always check with their parents first, standing rule for all of this), or dig through your bitz boxes for an easy build model or two. If, by the end of the day, they’re still lugging around the book, or the model, it’s probably good to skip ahead to section II. If not- let’s check out the next approach.

2. Extensions of Existing Hobbies

The second method is to try and introduce wargaming as an add-on to something they are already involved in, and a natural build out of underlying interest and enthusiasm. This is the harder way of introducing the larger hobby, and would usually be best done with a child who has exhibited interests in crafts, long-term projects, or is in a scouting organization of some kind, and just really needs the hobbyist badge (do Cub Scouts still do pins? Editor’s Note: Yes. There’s even a Warhammer-specific one in the UK). Here you want to introduce Warhammer (or your favorite tabletop wargame) and tabletop board gaming as just another way of spending time doing something fun and entertaining, similar to video games or other time sinks. Ideally, you’re dealing with a young person who has passed the developmental points for structured play and so they’ll be able to communicate frustration, boredom, or struggles with concepts or rules.

My favorite thing to do with a new hobbyist is to show off some of the big art splash pages in the codex or main rule books and ask them what they think is the coolest thing in there, then suggest that maybe the two (or three, or four) of you build a kit together, or maybe play a practice round.

 

Lessons and Building a Better Player

Remember to smile, breathe, and hold back any petty retorts for the parent(s).

Alright, you’ve made it this far; let’s look at what makes a good Warhammer player, and someone who can go into the hobby with healthy and positive knowledge of the silly thing we’re all on this site to talk about.

Let’s start with the hard stuff: This is going to stretch both your love of the hobby, and your willingness to hang out with this young person at future family events and such. This will be, at times, a succession of incidents dealing with “That Guy” at your LGS, and you’ll have to maintain an image of a fair and positive role model for some of these lessons to stick. Towards the end of this section, I’ll have a top 5 list of positive behaviors to help develop, and a list of things to watch out for early on. In the meantime, let’s talk about what makes a “good” wargamer.

My first piece of advice here is to ask yourself “what can I do to be a better casual player?” I’m going to tell you to repeat “casual” to yourself several times during this introspective process, maybe put on some spa music to really get that thinkmeat churning. You do not want to compete with this person, not yet – and maybe not ever – unless they specifically ask you for it. This will not only negatively impact the lessons you’re trying to build up here, but it will also hurt the enthusiasm over the near- and middle-term of young person’s involvement in the hobby.

Think about shortcuts you take, and house rules you and your friends/opponents have made over the years; do they benefit the game overall, or do they close out opportunities and options for entry level players? How about the tempo of your turns? Are you perhaps not being as transparent to your opponent about the timing and order of your moves? These are not necessarily negative traits, but maybe bad habits built up over years of playing with the same people – built-in assumptions that are shared by your group but are kind of baffling for others. Teaching what you love is a great opportunity for personal betterment and growth, and I highly recommend it for things beyond just Warhammer, or games in general.

So, with introspection and self-work done, let’s talk about setting up that excited, new, and clueless young person with some space dolls, and playing their first REAL game. You’re going to want to start small here. In my case, lil Eschaton was obsessed with running his Repulsor in his first game against my Baneblade, because tanks are cool as hell, and who doesn’t want to bust out the big guns ASAP? Trouble is, he had no idea how anything else worked; positioning, range, points values, relative weapon strengths, etc. is a ton of data to take in, even for an adult, and you don’t want to ruin a child’s excitement with all the nitty-gritty of the unfun learning stuff. Instead, keep the big, marquee fights as rewards, or special events in order to maintain momentum and excitement.

It is best, for the first couple of games to work on squad, or even individual model level rules. Kill Team (or Warcry or Shadespire for you AoS folks) all present a great way to start small, letting you begin building up forces and variables, and are made even better when you match it with a start collecting or a battalion box. Each week or month can be an opportunity to add new models and rule sets. Start off with the ubiquitous Space Marine, and work your way through Terminators, Assault Marines, heroes, and Dreadnoughts before jumping into tanks and more complicated units.

One of my biggest notes on managing complexity and the difference in “value” of individual models comes from a note I have on a certain Predator tank: A child, or inexperienced player, is generally going to see a tank in the popular culture image of an armored fighting vehicle. That is to say; they will expect that it will be extremely hard to kill, and so they should just park it in the middle of the field with full field of view to everything else, and they’re going to be disappointed the first time someone puts a twin lascannon through it and one-shots it. Here it helps to start by teaching with a single infantry figure first – that it’s always best to keep things hidden or secreted away so that you, and not your opponent, get to decide when and how it interacts with the overall game.

A good rule of thumb is to think ahead, and realize that most aspects of this game will be seen not through the statistical analysis of a unit’s statline, but rather by “Rule of Cool,” and identification of the unit with pop culture representation.

That said, if you find yourself playing the spawn of Angron, maybe let them run that tank right out there for a turn or two, but don’t zap it because you can. Plan your own moves to build in lessons about major rules, fire, movement, and combined maneuvers as practicable, visible things, rather than obscure concepts of strategy and response. I’ll reiterate here, that the focus is on fun and involvement rather than victory, defeat, or the minutiae of rules and supplements.

I want to impress that the main draw here shouldn’t be the models, or the rules, or the cool art of big men/bugs/mushrooms, etc. smashing each other, but rather the draw should be the social interaction, the fun, and the fact that every match, every contest, and every tournament is an opportunity to show off all the work a player puts into their army, and is an opportunity for enthusiasts and fans to meet and share the excitement of playing. You’re going to want this young person to truly enjoy the experience of hanging out and moving toys around a foam board, but to do so, you need to identify what makes it the most fun for them, and their continued enjoyment.

In our games, Lil Eschaton took an unusual interest in running his Primaris Marines into a unit of Custodian Guard that I brought out, just because he got a thrill in seeing how many dice I could roll during Overwatch, and the later Fight phase. It didn’t matter to him that he almost universally lost; he just liked the thrill of the gamble, and the follow up to see if maybe, just maybe he could land a wound on the unit. (Reference back to the “Don’t Be An Overpowering Dick” message earlier in the article, lesson learned here).

 

At this point, I’ve written about 2000 words, and haven’t yet developed a “Must do” list of how to engage with, and bring on a new player, nor have I talked about that top skills list, like I said I would. Well, the wait is over, see here for the 10 best things you can do for and with a new player.

10 Things to Do When Bringing New Players Into the Game

  1. Do GET PARENTAL PERMISSION. There are some mature themes, and decent monetary and storage costs involved here; have a plan to either buy the bulk of the army/tools, or have stuff ready to lend if you intend to get a new player involved. As a veteran ham there’s every chance you have a backlog of stuff you’re never going to get to – consider whether this might be a good source of loaner models.
  2. Do demonstrate good sportsmanship, and patience for when rules get misinterpreted or forgotten
  3. Do encourage good dice rolling habits, using a dedicated rolling mat or box for this step really pays off. Do encourage that every result be spoken to and indicated to both opponents before any dice are removed from the table.
  4. Do Not expect a consistent and steady stream of involvement and interest; school, vacation, and just the life of being a kid will get in the way, and if the interest remains, you’ll have the chance to refresh and pick up where you both left off.
  5. Do Not expect the young person to have the same enthusiasm or interest as you from the get-go, or ever. Do not be one of those nerd dads/moms/uncles/aunts/swamp creatures: Let the child find their own joy and foster that, rather than trying to force them to share yours.
  6. Do set a plan for the time you spend with them around Warhammer stuff. Go to the store, paint some models, show them how priming and undercoating work. If the energy level is low, maybe watch some WarhammerTV on YouTube, or watch a game on a well-known and well edited YouTube profile!
  7. Do leverage your local gaming community: Games Workshop stores are awesome for this, but your FLGS might also run learning days or youngbloods events
  8. Do mix things up. Swapping out game modes, introducing army composition restrictions, etc. all lead to a more fun and varied experience.
  9. Do Not freak out. You will experience severe frustration when trying to explain things like leadership, morale, cover rules (house rules are fine, to a point) to a young person. You will also more likely than not run into cheating or fudging of measurements/rules. Don’t freak out but use these chances to show what a good player is like and talk through the challenge.
  10. Do get excited about it! This is a chance to (maybe – remember, don’t force it) grow the community and get someone into the hobby! Having started my Warhammer 40,000 journey at 10, I can say that it looks like something that can totally offer a lifetime of enjoyment and passion. Show how excited you are that this person is getting involved, and you’re sure to see that excitement returned to you.

Next Steps and Continuing Interest

Rewards are handy, and useful in marking major milestones. And so are chicken fingers.

You’ve made it! Congratulations on both your continued proficiency in literacy, and for enduring this far. Ideally, by this point of your mentoring journey, both you and the hamlet (hamster? hambit?) have decent-sized forces, several games under your belts, and may have even entered a competition of some sort. Awesome!

Now you’re both at the great jumping off point and are wondering how to keep this positive ball rolling. Well, there’s no solid answer for that, and the truth is that sometimes, the obsessions and interests of our youth kind of wither and die off in the face of new and exciting experiences – many older gamers will recall a sudden loss of interest in Warhammer for a period that coincided with a growing interest in beer and the opposite sex. That’s OK! What you have done up to this point is provide a foundation for marination in one of the nerdiest of hobbies, but you’ve also provided a channel for positive adult feedback while hopefully teaching some useful social and organizational skills. Done right, these are going to form good memories later on and maybe contribute to the chain of positive mentorship for future hobbyists and board gamers.

Go forth, do good, and, please for the good of all involved, have FUN!

 

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