Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dynamic Combat in Warhammer

As my recent article on lethality creep suggests, and as Gaj's ongoing dramatic battle miniseries evidences, Oldhammer battles often consist of a gritty back-and-forth slugfest of smashing skulls and splintering armour. When the enemy is driven to rout by the press of steel, a friendly regiment can always swoop in, flying the banner to steady their nerves and rally them to return to the fight. Indeed, rallying and returning to seek vengeance on their adversaries is a frequent occurrence on the Oldhammer battlefields.

While this grit and gore is no doubt part of what makes the Oldhammer experience so unique, with every sword strike keeping you at the edge of your seat and each slain foe a small victory, the difficult odds of overcoming an enemy warrior may seem to produce a mêlée that is very static. Certainly, compared to the boosted lethality of later editions, fewer warriors fall to the swath of swords each round and each lost combatant means one less retaliation. So, when every blow counts, what keeps these gritty back-and-forth slugfests so dynamic? The difficulty in overcoming an enemy means that it is certainly feasible that a round of mêlée produces no casualties. Are there still interesting and tactical choices to make, even when the dice turn their back on you? Let's take a look at a few rules in Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition to explore the options:

I Challenge You!
No doubt a mainstay of many Warhammer games, the challenge between opposing champions is a dramatic and stirring event. There is inherent risk and uncertainty associated with challenges, as the player is often stepping into the unknown and likely does not know exactly what he is getting into. Is that merely a regiment leader, or a major hero? Are their dangerous magical weapons involved? As models in Oldhammer can only wound adjacent base to base enemies, a powerful combat character is very much wasted on fighting mere fodder, and is best employed for more heroic tasks, including monster slaying and challenges. Matched with a fitting opponent, the warrior hero comes into his own. Refusing a challenge, on the other hand, will cause a cowardly champion to shrink back into the rear ranks and lose all respect he had earned from his regiment. The enemy is then given the chance to cut through the regiment in search of the abject and craven champion hiding amongst the fallen comrades. Challenges allow a hero to contribute more towards the combat results than from regular fighting, particularly against opponents with multiple wounds, and represent an interesting and fun sub-game of pitting your magical weapons and skills against the opponent.

Seize Their Banner!
The regiment standard is a symbol of the regiment's pride and origins. Unlike the aesthetic promoted in later versions of Warhammer, the diverse banners found in old dioramas seem to indicate that each unit is not only a separate component of the army, but comes from a different region, has a different background and perhaps even a different culture. While Newhammer armies tend to have a unified colour scheme of one or two tones that gives the army a general sense of uniformity, Oldhammer regiments are heterogenous, as found in the diversity of their banners which have a lot of individual character and personality. Seizing the enemy's standard is capturing the symbol of their mettle and everything they are fighting for, whether hearth and home or gold and glory. In combat, the regiment standard bobs up and down with the fray, acting as a beacon to summon the regiment's courage and compelling them to make a stand. The rules for capturing the enemy standard in Warhammer 3rd Edition are thus quite exciting and action-packed, as a regiment will fight tooth and bone to retain their icon in the mad scramble for the banner. In game terms, the death of the standard bearer (which is unfortunately fairly common, as the poor fellow has to stand in the front rank) means that the enemy may make a dive to the trodden mud to recover the fallen banner. The result is an immediate second round of combat (literally doubling the action for the round), which could end in the regiment retrieving its colours and chasing off the dismayed enemy, the pennant being crushed into the turf and lost in the confusion or the enemy capturing the standard and sending the regiment to flight (earning a slaughter of free strikes as they rout). A regiment that has lost its standard will remain sullen and demoralized for the rest of the battle, significantly increasing their penchant to retire from the battlefield.

Push Them Back!
Of course, battles can always be won even without causing excess casualties. All things equal, a regiment that has momentum, either carrying forward the impact of a charge or seizing impetus from the changing tides of previous rounds of combat, will overcome their foes. When this happens, the enemy is forced to step back under the press of steel and is forced backwards two inches. While this may not seem like a significant parcel of the battlefield, gaining ground incrementally allows the attacker much more maneuvering room for supporting regiments in the rear while further constraining and compacting the enemy position. Furthermore, while outflanking a phalanx can be extremely difficult, as the battle line is both very wide and is often flanked by powerful cavalry to intercept the enemy maneuver, pushing back the enemy center offers a critical strategy to breaking up stalwart battle lines. After a turn or two of pressing the enemy regiment to give ground, the attacker will have inflicted the quarter unit strength of casualties needed to force a rout test. When the enemy is put to flight, the attacker is now usually four inches deep into enemy lines and, restraining pursuit, is perfectly situated to immediately reform and charge directly into the flank of a central column of the enemy battle line. Needless to say, the resulting panic test can unfold the entire formation. When fighting regiments in isolation of a larger military formation, pushing back also provides other tactical choices. Should the victors leave their trenches to chase off the enemy for good? Should the winning regiment lose some of its cohesion to surround and mob the losers? Are there advantages to expanding the frontage, or would it be better to retain a rank bonus? All of these questions depend on battlefield conditions and can make for interesting decisions for the player.

As we have seen, even with the gritty and uncompromising combat of Oldhammer, there can still be compelling tactical decisions for the player when the dice fail. Exploring all of the options in Oldhammer combat truly helps provide for a dynamic and immersive experience, hearkening back to the roleplaying roots of the game. Importantly, these details allow combat to remain bloody even if it is tough fought, without artificially boosting mêlée lethality to spiral out of control and ultimately devalue the individual dice rolls into a sort of game of statistics and averages. The current tournament atmosphere of more recent editions of Warhammer is a testament to these latter-day changes to the structure of the game, where buckets of dice replace strategic thinking and certain "army builds" are presumed to reign over other, inferior ones. By taking serious the full body of game mechanics in older editions, sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and overly complicated "crunch," there are certain avenues to inject narrative and choice back into a game that some may feel has become entirely too determinate and therefore too prescriptive in its playstyle.


  1. Are you going to allow followers soon?

  2. Excellent article. Next time I roll all "1's" I will attempt to shift the tactical balance. Please keep these up I have really enjoyed the past few articles.

  3. Ok, I added Google Friend Connect to the site, for all those who want to join.

  4. I don't even play Warhammer, and I found this article thoroughly engrossing! Nice job.



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