Just Shoot Me

Many experienced Warhammer players could tell you stories of how many rookies they have seen who turn up for a game armed to the teeth with archers, handgunners, mages, cannon and the like, hoping to obliterate their opponent before the game reaches Turn 3. A great many of those players were then sent running with their tail between their legs, having had their hides handed to them by a far more experienced player, using far less ranged firepower. To the untrained eye, the simple way to win a game of Warhammer would be to field as much shooting as you can, and then to simply pulp your opponent from afar. But does it really work that way?

 

In real war, given the choice between a man with a sword and a man with a gun, it seems pretty obvious who is going to win. Provided the guy with the gun is not a complete clown, and there is sufficient distance between them for him to have a clean shot, the guy with the sword is going to get shot. It might not kill him, but there is a good possibility, and even if he is able to persevere, he will be fighting wounded. Ultimately your money would be on the man with the ranged weapon, who is likely to win without taking a scratch. When watching Lord of the Rings, I see walls of Elven archers pouring fire into the Uruk-hai, clearly at a massive advantage, and then they suddenly draw their swords, charge in, and die. Why, I cry? Why not sit back and mow them all down from afar, thus saving the lives of hundreds of Elves, the day, and probably Middle Earth? Perhaps that does not make for a good film, or perhaps it was all Gimli’s fault for launching himself on top of the enemy, rather than holding back prudently and waiting for all the enemy to die. Whatever the reason, it frustrates me when I see it, and I tell myself that I would have done it differently.

 

When you prepare an army for a game of Warhammer, you generally think about what you want that army to do. High on most players’ criteria is that they want it to win (or at the very least to have a chance to win). In the interests of winning, they would prefer to plan to win easily. That means that if something does not go according to plan, they might still win, albeit by a more slender margin. Winning easily generally means killing your opponent’s troops, but not getting your own troops killed in the process. This means killing them before they can kill you, and the best way to do this is to shoot them.

 

There is nothing terribly complicated about this plan – shoot the enemy until they are all dead or running away, and the field is yours. This may not be the most creative or exciting way to win a battle, but it should certainly be effective. Unfortunately, in Warhammer this does not seem to be the case. As I have already stated, many players try to win games in this manner, but the majority of them fail.

 

Swords and Sandals

 

There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that Warhammer was designed as a game that would not normally be won by armies of archers. This seems an entirely likely explanation, given that Warhammer is intended to be a game of serried ranks of brave (or cowardly) soldiers, marching, wheeling and charging into each other in order to dice their enemies up into small pieces in glorious combat. Warhammer 40,000 is the game for people who want to shoot their enemies into submission – plasma rifles and lascannons are far better suited to this task than bows and arrows.

 

But then if this were really the case, would there be armies that seem to be based very heavily around the skills of their ranged troops? The Empire and Dwarfs have a devastating array of war machines, and most players would sooner hit themselves over the head with a large blunt object than play against a Dwarf army with 4 Bolt Throwers, 2 Cannon, 2 Organ Guns and numerous Thunderers. The self-flagellating tendencies of gamers aside, this is partly because the game on the receiving end of that barrage is unlikely to be fun, and it is unlikely to go well, either. Some armies may stand up to it, but others will melt like butter. Wood Elves are capable of fielding walls of archers, all of whom are skilled, and many of whom become increasingly dangerous as you finally close in on them. So clearly it is possible to field an intimidating amount of firepower, presumably enough to potentially win you the game.

 

However, the game mechanics for shooting are a great deal simpler than those for close combat. You shoot at a regiment, troops die, and then (if you have killed enough), they will take a Panic test. So here you have two methods of nullifying the regiment. One is to kill everybody in the unit, and the other is to Panic it and hope that it fails to rally. In close combat, you attack the enemy, they attack back, and then the loser has to take a Break test. Apart from the enemy retaliating (an worse, potentially winning the combat), this sounds pretty similar to the shooting. The difference, however, is in the Break test. Panic tests are normally taken on the unmodified leadership of the enemy, but Break tests are taken on their modified leadership.

 

If you kill 5 models from a unit of 20 High Elf spearmen (which is not hard to do, bitter High Elf player that I am), they will generally test on leadership 8. If you kill 15 of them (which is a little harder, I suppose), they will still test on 8s. So there is no real reward in terms of Panic for killing 3 times as many of them. They are just as likely to hold and press on (although what 5 High Elf spearmen are going to do, I can’t say).

 

On the other hand, if you manage to kill 2 of those Elves with your 20 Goblins in close combat and take no casualties in return (oh come on, we all know it happens all the time!), they will be testing on leadership 5 (they’re outnumbered, as well as taking 2 casualties). If they are particularly unfortunate and lose all 5 models in their front rank (fearsome, these goblins), they will need double 1s to hold their nerve! So the difference comes down to receiving a decisive advantage from giving the enemy a drubbing, whereas wiping almost all of them out with shooting is no more likely to make them run than killing barely a quarter.

 

You also need to bear in mind that when you break a unit in combat, you will generally have something already in contact with it, primed to run it down when it flees (or at least to charge it again if it rallies). This is obviously not the case when the unit panics from shooting, so it is almost certainly going to have the chance to rally. Given that running down a fleeing unit is the single easiest and fastest way to eliminate it, this gives real weight to the close combat approach.

 

Slings and Arrows

 

The other explanation for the failure of most shooting armies to wipe out their opponents is related to the players themselves. It could be that the shooting player does not go about it the right way, or that their opponents know how to deal with the problem, or field armies that cannot be effectively stopped that way. First we’ll look at the steps that the shooting player needs to take if they are to have any chance of their goal.

 

Ready:

When creating an army, it is often important to know what you want it to do. In the case of a shooting army, you need to decide how heavily you are going to rely upon your shooting. You need to decide what unit types you’re going to have to deal with, and make sure you field something to handle each one. If you’re relying entirely on shooting, you need to not only make the enemy take Panic tests, but reduce units to no more than one or two models – insufficient to break a single line of archers, or a lone war machine.

 

Of course, a shooting army need not consist solely of shooting units. Even if you want to make sure you field an intimidating amount of firepower, there may still be room for one or two “holding” units – something to tangle up some of the enemy while you obliterate the rest of them with shooting. This may be something Unbreakable, or perhaps Stubborn, such as Dwarf Slayers or a Treeman. Used correctly, units like this could effectively negate a particularly nasty enemy unit (perhaps one that you could not have shot to death, even had you wished to).

 

Another popular choice in shooting armies is march-blockers. Units such as an Eagle or some scouting Huntsmen can really delay the enemy with their shadowing presence behind enemy lines. Who knows, some opponents may even be foolish enough to turn units around to face the invariably worthless and highly maneuverable units used for this purpose...

 

The use of characters can also have an important impact on the performance of a shooting army. Mages have access to spells such as Curse of Arrow Attraction, which can pretty much guarantee the annihilation of the target unit when backed up with enough firepower, or they may take a more direct hand in the destruction of units with spells such as Pit of Shades or Flames of the Phoenix. Many characters have access to missile weapons of their own. While it is rarely useful to get a normal bow or crossbow for a hero, the magical versions of those same weapons can be extremely dangerous, and provide handy backup for your archer units. Finally there are engineer-type characters, who are able to enhance the effectiveness of your artillery, often with lethal results.

 

Aim:

Assuming that the army has been selected correctly, it needs to be deployed right as well. You often see an army with a lot of shooting being unable to bring it all to bear, because there was insufficient room in the deployment zone, and not enough hills. Units end up deploying in ranks that cannot shoot, or behind other friendly units. This is often the result of the player not thinking through their army selection, or having the unreasonable expectation that his whole deployment zone would be hills. You also need to bear in mind that your units will not have unlimited range or arc of fire. If you want units to be able to concentrate their fire, they all need to be able to shoot the same places.

 

It has been pointed out to me how important getting the first turn is when your army relies on shooting, but this is a bit subjective. Under ordinary circumstances, a shooting army should take the first turn if given the chance. Doing so will give you an extra round of shooting before the enemy arrives. Perhaps more importantly, it will give you a round of shooting before they move away from their own table edge. This gives you the opportunity to panic units off the table before the fight even really begins! However, this is not the only consideration. An army of Dwarf Thunderers and Organ Guns (all of which shoot up to 24”) should not normally take the first turn, for instance. What is the point of rushing to take the first turn if your whole army is going to be at least a fraction of an inch out of range? Empire hand guns try to overcome this problem with the extra D6 inches added to their first shot, but it is unreliable, and many armies have no such provision. So while it is normally advisable to take the first turn, it is not a complete given.

 

Fire!

If all of this has been correctly carried through, it all comes down to execution during the game. Assuming that you are presented with targets as you expected, you need to make sure you have a plan and stick to it. Pick the right targets for the right weapons, and (very importantly) decide how many you need to kill. The number of times my opponents fire at Frenzied Savage Orcs (who are never going to run away), when they could have been forcing Panic tests on more vulnerable targets continues to amaze me. When picking your targets, there are 3 approaches:

 

  1. Wipe them out – obviously this will require considerable firepower, and depending on the target, it may well be impossible. Remember that if you do wipe out a unit, it may well panic any adjacent units as a bonus.
  2. Panic them – this is often easy enough to do. If this is your plan, remember not to waste extra firepower on them once they’ve lost a quarter of the unit. Start panicking other targets as well. Remember that not everything can panic.
  3. Cripple them – if you can’t wipe them out, you may at least be able to reduce the unit to such a state that it will no longer be a threat. This will likely still take a lot of firepower, but for some targets (such as fast cavalry), it does not take a lot to reduce the unit to a point where it can no longer fulfill its purpose (such as reducing its Unit Strength to below 5).

 

It is possible that you will not be able to realistically do any of the above things to the target unit. A large unit of Grail Knights, for instance, will not run away, is dangerous down to the last man, and will take a huge amount of firepower to wipe out. When this happens, the unit should be placed in the Too Hard Basket – you can’t stop it with shooting. Rather than wasting your firepower in a futile effort, you should shoot at something you can do something about. Let the Grail Knights have their fun, and hope that they do not do so much damage that they win the game on their own. After all, if you manage to shoot everything else to death, they have a lot of points they need to recover!

 

When picking targets for Panic tests, there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration. The easiest unit to panic will normally be the one with the lowest leadership, sitting outside of the general’s leadership range, and with sufficiently few models that it won’t take a lot of shots to kill a quarter of the unit. The immediate temptation will be to target such units, and manage to force multiple tests in a single turn. Sometimes this will be the best thing to do, especially if these are small, fast cavalry units that would be threatening your shooting units in Turn 2. However, there is sometimes an argument for targeting something that is far harder to panic.

 

Often the most dangerous elements of the enemy army will be sheltering under the best leadership. This is natural, and means that your opponent is protecting his assets properly. However, so long as a unit is not immune to panic, it is not completely protected. While it may seem silly to shoot at a unit with leadership 10 when there are other units with leadership 5 just waiting to be panicked, it is a risk versus reward situation. If the player happens to fail that leadership 10 test and loses his general, army bearer and best regiment off the table in a single blow, it was clearly worth the effort (I’ve seen it happen. It may reduce your opponent to a broken wreck, but that may just have been your intention all along)! Obviously this approach is a gamble, but it can be well worthwhile under the right circumstances.

 

The Pointy End

 

An experienced player is unlikely to simply wander his most vulnerable units slowly into the teeth of enemy fire, hoping for the best. Sometimes he will have no choice, but normally there will be a way that he can interfere with your cunning plan. Often the player will be fielding an army (such as Vampire Counts) where panicking the units is not an option. Worse, in the case of the Vampire Counts, the models you shoot can get back up again, and call their friends to the party! Naturally this is the worst-case scenario, but you need to be prepared for the fact that some armies are well-placed to brush off shooting attacks and move in for the kill.

 

Even an army that is theoretically vulnerable to missile fire will normally be selected in such a way that it contains tools with which it can hopefully disable war machines, tie up valuable shooting units, and generally shield its approach into combat. Spells such as the Howler Wind are specifically designed for this purpose, and will render much of your shooting ineffective. Effective use of terrain can make your task that much harder, as well.

 

In general, most experienced players are unlikely to be intimidated by a wall of archers on the other side of the table. Often they see a lot of points tied up in units with little Unit Strength, no rank bonus, and no chance of defending themselves. In short, if they can only get there, the game will be over.

 

As a result of all of this, players tend to dislike fighting shooting armies. The game will start out with endless missile fire being poured into their army, and if they’re lucky, will then become a gore fest in which the remnant of their units slaughter the ill-prepared missile troops who failed to save themselves. This may trigger concern in some players, but it is treated with disdain by others. In short, nobody really expects to enjoy the game, but just hopes to make it through intact.

 

A Dying Breed?

 

This general distaste for fighting missile armies seems to have led to fewer of them being taken. Most players don’t want to use an army that their opponents hate facing (and will avoid fighting again in the future). This is understandable, but are shooting armies really to be discouraged? Gone are the days when a player can field 6 Organ Guns at once (at that time, the equivalent of fielding 30 cannons for a song!). Repeater Bolt Throwers no longer ignore armour with 4 shots each, piercing ranks as they go. Simply put, shooting armies are not as terrifying as they used to be*. This could cut both ways – they’re not as effective (and therefore less enticing to players who might use them), but they should be less terrible for opponents, as well.

 

It seems that the first of these effects might be winning out – the reduced effectiveness of all-shooting armies, coupled with their general dislike amongst players who have to face them, appears to have resulted in these armies dying off. They are still around, but they are no longer common-place. Not one player at the club regularly fields one, and I don’t think any even do it on a semi-regular basis.

 

In an ideal world, armies would all be balanced, they would offer all other armies an interesting challenge, and no force would be stronger than any other. We all know this is not the case, and part of the interest in the game is coming up with different armies, and fighting varied opponents. Bearing that in mind, I don’t think it’s a good thing that shooting armies are in danger of being bullied out of the game. Obviously the mantra “all things in moderation” could help to appease the critics, but shooting is in the game for a reason, shooting-heavy armies are part of the game, and players should get on with trying to beat such forces, instead of complaining about them.

 

 *I feel obliged to point out here that I do not approve of the Dwarf special character Thorek Ironbrow. This character is incredibly frustrating to play against, given that he not only kills things, but slows an army as well. This is fine for a normal Runelord, but doing it on a 3+ with a re-roll is excessive. If anything is going to frustrate players and turn them against ranged attacks, Thorek will.