Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears. I’ve been meaning to address this topic for a while. A LONG while. The problem is, it’s complicated, and at the same time it’s foundational to the games we all love. I’ve let the topic simmer in the odd cranial brain-brew I’ve got going, and now I think it’s ready to share. Per my usual disclosures: This is a beginner to high-level article on core mechanics. I’ll be using force-vectors and the option valuation to explain the Multiple Small Unit (MSU) phenomena. I’ll also be poorly paraphrasing the Ender’s Game series quite a bit. Bonus points and my eternal gratitude to anyone who can identify the quotes in the comments section.
So let’s dig into geometry and applied force first.
‘The winning commander isn’t always the one with the greater sized army, but rather the one controlling the most force at the point of inflection in the battle’ -Need help here? Rynth?
Force and application. That’s what we’re talking about here. It really doesn’t matter how far you are ahead on attrition if you’re assassinated. It’s simple as that. Your army is a tool. That tool needs to be applied with the right effort, at the right location to apply effect.
In a miniatures game like Warmachine and Hordes the force you are applying is damage. For the remainder of this article I’ll use the terms damage or expected damage as force output. It should be noted that this is net of the attack and damage rolls on the target once all the appropriate stats are interacted (MAT/DEF, POW/ARM). Let me reinforce this with an example of two Cygnar models trying to kill a Mauler.
- Junior with one focus to shoot him.
- Choose boost to hit: expected force = 0.9dmg
- Choose boost to damage: expected force = 4.7dmg
- Ol’ Rowdy and three focus to bash him.
- Walk, four hammers, one fist: expected force = 28.4dmg
Important notes out of that example:
- The force (damage) a model can apply depends on its target.
- The force a model can apply depends on how the model is used.
- The force a model can apply is restricted by its range of application.
That third one isn’t explicit in the example, but you were probably thinking ‘seriously dude, who puts a Mauler within walking range of Ol’ Rowdy?’ Your intuition is spot-on. Models can apply force on one another, but that force diminishes as you increase the distance you’re applying it against. Let’s keep this thing going with Ol’ Rowdy and the Mauler. I’ve got Ol’ Rowdy under Kraye so I can double his speed for two focus. What I’ve graphed below is the expected damage for Ol’ Rowdy given his distance from the Mauler.
When Ol’ Rowdy starts close, he’s all-killer-no-filler. However, Ol’ Rowdy’s damage output on the Mauler decreases pretty significantly as Kraye diverts a greater number of resources to get him into position. This example only shows the problem in one-dimension (linear inches). You can guess that the problem is even more complex than that because we play with pewter robots on a table, so there are two dimensions of movement!
This is a really nice segue into the options discussion, with that, another quote!
“There is no combat without movement.” –Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card.
To effectively apply force you, want to use your options effectively. There are two predominant types of option in Warmachine and Hordes: Spatial Options and Temporal Options. Spatial Options can be thought of as flexibility in movement. Temporal options can thought of as flexibility in order of operations. I’ve written a previous article called “Delayed… Decision… Mechanics…” if the concept of order of operations is new to you. Even if it’s unfamiliar or rusty, a refresher never hurts.
Some factions are defined by their Spatial Options. Circle Orboros fits this mold more than most. They have excellent speed. They have placement effects from the Shifting Stones giving them non-linear movement. They even have casters that magnify their flexibility with effects of their own. (Kromac – Warpath, Kaya2-Feat, etc.) All of this fluidity allows them to hit and run effectively. Their forces can succeed without brute force because they’re nimble.
I’ve asserted previously that the force a model can apply depends on its target and range of application. Here we’re dialing in on that later portion of that sentiment. Spatial Options define where your models can be applied. With a more flexible field, (more Spatial Options), you can more effectively condense force (smash things). I can get a lot of power on to one place as a player if I have good Spatial Options. If I’ve condensed my forces on a strategically intelligent spot (like a warcaster/warlock/critical piece) it’s going to win me the game.
Here’s a list of factors that can be thought of a spatial options/spatial option enhancers;
- High SPD
- Placement on your force applying piece or the force target.
- Out of activation movement
- Buffs to any of the above.
Ah… but the world is filled with clever opponents, so it becomes a game. Most mid-level players will begin using tactics to prevent their opponents from condensing force. I think of these as dispersion tactics. These dispersion elements are meant to either prevent force from condensing or to reduce maximum force applied.
I like the word dispersion here because it makes me think of rocks breaking the surf. The same thing is happening here. You spread the effect of your opponent’s army down to insignificance by dispersing it, then you let slip the dogs of war.
Here are the top three dispersing mechanics you’ll see: the jam, the screen, and the block. This calls for some pretty pictures.
Here’s a picture of the jam at its best. I’ve run a unit forward, jamming it down your throat. Now you have to waste resources removing the jam or sacrifice the effectiveness of the jammed unit.
Here’s a picture of the screen. This is a limiter on linear travel. If you want to charge through the screen, you’ll have to move stuff out of the way. The gooey, creamy, caramel-filled center of my army is right there, just out of reach, and you want it. That said, screening 4+ tough Boomhowlers are maddeningly effective as a screen. Frustrating? You bet it is.
Lastly, is the block. You literally give the force applying model nowhere to land. If Ol’ Rowdy can’t end up within melee range of his target then he’s going to have a bad time. Colossals and Gargantuans are most vulnerable to the block due to their base size and general predictability of their movements paths. Again, wildly frustrating.
Sadly, you can also block yourself. If you clutter up too many guys, you create a cluster inhibiting any more from attacking. Reach really shines in melee combat by alleviating this pressure. This is why Bane Knights are nice to mix in with Bane Thralls. Look at the two pictures below and see what the added spatial option (Reach) has bought me in attacks.
Now for the last piece: Temporal Options.
Take two armies. One is comprised solely of a ten man unit. The other is five solos. This is completely hypothetical, but let’s also assume equal point totals, aggregate damage output, etc. We are only going to examine their difference in activation count. The ten man unit has one activation. One. While the five solos get to act separately. Why is that significant? The ten man unit will be extremely vulnerable to a jam because they have no way to remove it. The army of solos will throw one guy in to clog up the enemy, and then the other four will be free to go to town on the jammed unit.
Limited Temporal Options (activation count) weakened the ten man unit pretty severely. As you can see, additional activations gives you greater flexibility. It allows you to free-up portions of your army that might be pinned down, and to better condense force against enemy models through the use of movement and buffs.
Temporal options also buy you another useful tool: information. As your turn resolves new information presents itself. Each successful (or failed) activation gives you an idea if the turn is going as you planned or allows you time to correct. As dice rolls move from probabilities to certainties (because they’ve been rolled), you can modify your plan.
If you don’t think delaying an action for information is valuable, here’s a question for you: Would you have married Tara Reid in 1996? Of course you would have. She was America’s classy and sweet girl-next-door in American Pie, just setting out on a potentially promising career in acting. How about now? Not so excited about the prospect anymore, huh? Between 1996 and now you’ve gathered additional information about good ‘ol Tara Reid, and that data is giving you some serious second thoughts. Similarly, having a higher number of activations allows you to redirect your plans, just in case something happens that causes you to change your mind.
These factors point to what many are referring to as MSU, but for the record, the first guy to make this disseminated forces thing a big deal sure as hell wasn’t a GW player. It was Napoleon. The fundamentals behind Napoleon’s tactics are all written above. He routinely overcame superior forces by utilizing smaller, independent, and more maneuverable troops. Since this site is chiefly run by John Demaris (another brilliant French strategist), I’ll keep with that theme and bring up Vauban too. Vauban’s strategies scream scenario-play fundamentals. He was known for making large (but tactically meaningless) concessions in battle, in order to hold a more defensible and critically valuable position. Again, not a GW player. He was even a predecessor of Napoleon’s, rocking defensive engineering tech in the late 1600’s.
Where does this leave us for Warmachine? If you want to be good, read. Warmachine’s rules lend themselves to infantry strategy and maneuver warfare tactics from the Roman Empire to today. Reading someone else’s battle-tested (literally) ideas takes a fraction of the effort, so why not take advantage of that? The concepts of condensing/dispersing force and capitalizing on options (both Spatial and Temporal) have been used for centuries, and I’m thrilled to see the state of play escalating and embodying more of these mechanics.
Thank you for sticking with me on this one, and now you know…
PS. Additional food for thought: Take the comments above and think about them for your assassination lists. Pre-condensing force and applying it with a single model (offensive buffs) or pre-condensing force and applying it with a single model at range (Caine2, my favorite).