This is the first in the continuation of a series that I’d already begun to roll out – focusing on “Eureka” moments that I’ve had during the course of my time in the game. As one practices with a given list there are particular skills, tricks, bits of nuance that one absorbs; this not a series about those things, but rather about the more abstract and overarching ideas that help to shape and direct decision trees game in and game out. These bigger picture ideas can be hard to convey in text, but trying to do so helps me to order my own thoughts and to better understand things as much as it (hopefully) helps to communicate them to you.
I’m reviving this series with the most essential and also the broadest of the Level Up concepts that I have lined up – Have a Plan. The essential message is just that – to play with a plan – but there are enough facets to it that I plan to take it in pieces, so this is only the first post focusing on the idea. Having a plan is an essential part of both designing lists and then doing them justice on the table. List design is more than enough of a topic to merit its own post, so let’s remain focused on actual gameplay here. Particularly here I want to focus on some of the lines of play that I associate with newer players and with having certain assumptions about what one “has to do” in playing a game that can result in giving away huge swathes of EV (expected value – a game theory terms referring to the reality that in a game in which things happen based on probabilities one line of play is only better than another in being more likely to result in a favorable outcome) without even really being aware that they have. This can be a very frustrating experience because it can create the impression of imbalance in the game – that there was no way that the player could win – not because this is so but because the person isn’t even aware of alternatives to the decision she made.
Experienced players can attest that one of the things that most immediately makes clear that they’re playing a game with someone less fluent is evidence in early turns that the other play is playing without a plan. This generally looks like using rules, abilities, stats in a way that doesn’t clearly advance a win condition. Perhaps the classic example of this is the use of Shield Wall on the first turn – especially on the top of one, which often does more to remove the unit from the game than to protect it. More broadly, however, newer players have a tendency to play in a way that (perhaps out of a need to manage the complexity of the game as they learn it) forgoes many of the decisions that are available to them. Here’s my attempt at listing some of the assumptions that newer players need to learn to push back against in order to play with purpose and to begin to work towards having a more cohesive overarching plan:
- Models have to move forward.
As a general statement I have found in my SR 2017 games (and I’ve really liked SR 2017, but that’s a different post) that the “turn seven” rule is one that matters dramatically more when both players are more experienced than when there is a significant disparity in experience. In the latter instance one player tends to overextend at various points – committing models in a way that doesn’t clearly further any plan, – and so bleeds out on attrition quickly enough that scenario becomes inevitable before the fixed turn limit.
That underlying assumption – that models, or at least combat models, have to move forward, have to commit, have to make attacks if they are able to every turn – is a big part of this. Newer players tend to find themselves in situations in which they find that they don’t have a way to cleanly engage, often without a big sexy attrition play staring them in the face on their second turn. Rather than taking the safer, less ambitious play that they’ve been given, they commit without a clear goal, running models to jam or committing significant pieces to clear bait pieces because that’s all that’s been made available to them to attack. Alternatively they may find that the deck has been stacked against them – they’re presented with Damiano’s Dug-In, Surefooted Trenchers as the target available to their ranged infantry. Rather than recognize that this is not an engagement that can be productive for them they march models forward and roll for 11s and 12s, and feel helpless when randomness doesn’t solve their predicament for them (some of this also is tied up in list building and recognizing what a list is good and bad at dealing with, and making list selections and then decisions in deployment and unpacking understanding how to use tools available).
- I Should Always Play Around Threat Ranges
This is actually a tendency that swings too far the other way as players become more experienced – something that premeasuring has exacerbated. A player becomes aware that they can play around threat ranges, and that attentive play can protect models. This becomes an end and not a means, however, and the player will tend to play overly conservatively. This is a more difficult thing to get through (I haven’t entirely) because the general instinct – to play around threats – is a good one. The important counterbalance here is to remember that models in a list are resources to use to move towards a victory condition, none of them have intrinsic value beyond how well they can be and are leveraged towards that end. What can happen in the case that a player is overly cautious like this is that he or she starts to lose control of scenario – and with it control over how he or she chooses to commit pieces. Stopping the scenario bleed starts to require commitments on the other player’s terms.
The point, then, is to recognize that engagement will happen in almost any game, and that pieces will be traded on both sides, and there is no such thing as a “flawless victory” in the context of a game between two players of comparable skill levels. So, when making decisions in light of your opponent’s threats neither default to aggression without direction or to refuse to concede pieces by trying to dance outside of ranges until you’re handed the game in a single turn. To illustrate with a concrete example – between Haley III and Ashlynn in Resistance I’ve been working with cloud wall lists a decent amount lately. When one has access to line of sight denial the immediate temptation is always to position to be entirely immune to enemy attacks – hang back so that nothing can even advance into melee range and play the game from within your pillow fort. This instinct tends to cause these lists to jam themselves up and to cede scenario points. Rather than do this ask “what would it cost me to allow my opponent to walk into engagement?” What models would I expose to attacks? What models would my opponent have to expose to take advantage? What board position am I gaining in the trade? I’ve found these lists are better than they look at dealing with Colossals and Gargantuans because of this ability to concede low impact activations in return for very high leverage turns. Either Haley or Ashlynn will happily trade a turn worth of shots into Trenchers or even a heavy in return for having a Colossal in range of every model in their army – allowing for retaliation filtered through Ragman, through Repudiate or Eilish. In both cases the armor cracking the list has available proves more formidable than it might look.
This is a complicated thing to try to talk about, and I will aim to keep an eye out for instances in games I play that help illustrate the points I’m trying to make – whether because I’ve practiced what I’ve preached or because my mistakes attest to the importance of what I need to do better. For now I’d recommend trying to be more conscious of your plan, including a concrete set of win conditions, from the outset of games that you play. As you make decisions during each game be aware of how those decisions advance you closer to that particular plan. After games ask your opponent whether they had a sense of what you were trying to do, of whether they noticed any instances during the game of your making choices that hurt your ability to achieve your goals. More experienced players particularly often love to be asked for their analysis – it can be flattering. To return to the first of these I wrote also preserve an internal locus – you have the ability to make the choices to determine the success or failure of your plan, and having a plan provides you with the understanding necessary to properly evaluate each choice.