How to Win
This is, perhaps more so than any other tactics article I have written, not actually about tactics. Instead it is a lengthy rambling on my thoughts of the game and how to be successful at it. I will try to keep it insightful and not too obvious, though it is primarily aimed at new players and to a degree that is unavoidable. It is intended for those of you who have read the rules a couple of times and got your army book, but are not quite certain of how to use this to become a successful player. I will try to not say things like "Know your army well" or "Know your opponent" or even "Know the rules", as I assume that this goes without saying. Likewise I will refrain from obvious statements like "Practice makes perfect", which in any case is patently untrue!
Important things to know
- Step 1 - Hate losing
- Don't be that guy
- Not all army lists are created equal
- Have a decent idea of what units are capable of
- It takes two to win a fight
Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory
- Lack of decisiveness
- Assuming that your opponent is an idiot
- A bigger and even more expensive Death Star
- Isolated units get eaten
- Live to fight another day
- Reinforcing a disaster
Aspects of an army
Important things to know
Step 1 - Hate losing
Sad, but true: If you don't mind losing then you will probably end up doing it more often than someone who dislikes it. If you are happy with a lost battle you will have less reason to seek to improve yourself and hence you can look forward to many more losses. I am not saying that you should do any and everything to win, including cheating, but a desire to win is, I believe, essential. When you lose, go through the battle in your mind afterwards and try to find out why you lost. Make a list of your mistakes and think of ways to avoid them next time.
There is a saying which I really despise and it is this: "If first you don't succeed - try, try again." Do not belive that. If you lose then do not "try, try again", find out why you failed and then try something else instead. All right, so sometimes an otherwise decet plan failed because of rotten luck,and in that case you may wish to try it again without significant alterations, but in my experience "bad luck" is often a term used when in reality the dice were not that unfriendly and but insufficient precautions were taken.
Don't be that guy
You know the person I'm thinking of - the person nobody likes to fight, who
throws temper tantrums when his General is killed, who insists on his dubious
rules interpretations and who fields an army so sad that he only ever gets to
fight against unsuspecting newbies and at tournaments. Don't be that
guy. Don't be a git.
The reason for this is simple: If you are a git, then nobody who realises this will voluntarily play against you. This leads to fewer battles for you and over all fewer wins. Thus observing common standards of behaviour will bring you more victories, even if it might reduce your chance of winning each individual battle.
There is a commonly held belief that there are two standards for decent behaviour - one for friendly games and one for competitive games. I do not believe that. I don't feel that it is any more acceptable to be gitish in a tournament game than in a friendly game. If during a tournament game my opponent says "Right, on to the Shooting phase" immediately after the Movement phase, then I will remind him that he forgot the Magic phase - I will not let it quietly pass and I most certainly will not gloat, inform him that he forgot the Magic phase and insist that he continue with the Shooting phase like he said. I do not need that kind of meta-advantage to win - it is not necessary and it does your reputation no good. Being competitive is one thing, and I must admit that I am highly competitive, but that is no reason to do any- and everything you think will give you an advantage.
Back in the autumn of 2005 I was organizing a local Warhammer tournament and one player brought me over to make a ruling on a disagreement he had with his opponent. It turned out that his opponent wanted to use a cannon's grape shot option against a target hidden by an ongoing melee, the goal being to fire into combat, something he as an Empire player is not able to do. Now, there are several reasons why that kind of action would be illegal, the foremost being that grape shot is not an indirect weapon and thus cannot be used against a target you cannot see. The Empire player, who to his defence was rather young, did apparently not know this and believed that if he targeted a unit out of range with grape shot, he would instead "accidentally" hit the enemy unit in combat who lay along his line of fire. I informed him that he could not do that, but did not immedately explain why. If he had relented then and accepted that his attempt to exploit a loop hole in the rules (or, rather, what he thought was a loop hole in the rules) I would have not thought too badly of him and just assumed that he did not know the rules very well. He did not and what he then said gave me a very low opinion of him. He said: "But what if I think it's within range?" with about as little conviction as a person is capable of displaying. I informed the young 'un that he should not try to be funny and refrain from such attempts in the future. Not only was he a git and he knew it, he was an incompetent git.
Remember though that standards of good behavior vary from place to place and something that is acceptable in one town may not be in the next. I for one am often shocked by what players in a certain capital of Norway (which shall remain unnamed) apparently find acceptable.
Not all army lists are created equal
People often ask if all army lists have more or less equal chance of winning and if you were one of those I can inform you now that they don't. It is perfectly possible to create an army list that has only a very slim chance of winning against the average opponent. If you are just starting out, write up a few army lists before you purchase too many models and ask more experienced players what they think of them. Be wary of putting too much faith in suggested army lists provided by Games Workshop on their website or in White Dwarf as they have an interest in you buying particular models and it would be a bad business move for them to admit that all options are not equally viable. Trust instead your fellow gamers, such as myself, whose only shady interest is getting you to play the way we do, as we of course think that we know what works better than anyone else.
Just to make things worse, with some army books it is a lot easier to create a more powerful list than it is with others. This is to a degree only natural, but it can be annoying how easy it is to create a list from Army Book X that will have little problem beating an average list from Army Book Y. There are usually two responses to claims that a certain army book makes it just a little to easy to make a very powerful list, the first being that such a list would still be possible to beat, which is entirely missing the point. After all, if Chaos Knights started at 16 pts instead of 33 as they currently are, then it would still be possible to beat a list with a large number of such knights, it would just be rather hard and quite possibly not very fun. The second reply is that the fault lies with the player (ab)using the list and not with the writers of the army books. In some cases that may be true, but in other cases what must be considered a "standard list" made from one army book is considerably more powerful than one made from another list and that is certainly the fault of the writer of the army book. In other cases it may be difficult to close all options to make very extreme armies that are either very powerful or very dull (or both), though in many cases this would have been easy to avoid (the option to take multiple units of Pegasus Knights in a Bretonnian list, for example, should not have been included).
One thing I have seen several times is that a relatively fresh player and
not very esperienced player has been playing with a small circle of equally
inexperienced players and bas been winning a lot using a relatively powerful
but one-track army list. A common case being using a tooled-up fighter lord in
a unit of powerful knights, sweeping all before them against players who do not
know the true value of fast cavalry. When this person starts to fight against
more experienced players he often finds that his hugely expensive knight unit
spends the entire battle chasing Glade Riders and getting shot up.
But it is certainly possible to go too far in the other direction as well. A friend of mine once said that he wanted to field an Empire army consisting entirely of combat infantry and wanted to know what I thought about such a list. I replied that I was in favour of him choosing a themed army but the "wimpy, crappy army" was perhaps not a theme I personally would have chosen.
Thus going for a more balanced list - decently tough but not too one-track - when you are starting out will often be a better idea - you will be beaten by more experienced players anyway but at least you will learn more quickly from it.
Quick tip: In my experience a new player will more often take too few (and hence too expensive) units, rather than taking too many units and will too often take too many upgrades (excessive amounts of armour and command options on sacreficial units) rather than too few.
This subject is a bit difficult for me to write about, since I do have a reputation for being lucky and therefore writing that luck is not all that important might be seen as somewhat conceited, but I truly believe that luck is something you plan for. With this I mean that you should plan for, if not the worst, then at least something not terribly good. Thus instead of having a battle plan that hinges on you going first or last, assume that you will not get the option you would really like. If you do then there is no such thing as bad luck in the roll to see who goes first as you cannot get a result worse than you expect - it is either the expected result or better than expected.
That is not to say that you should not take chances, but you should have some sort of backup plan if your luck fails other than swearing at your dice for betraying you. Warhammer is after all rather dependant on dice rolls, and to put it simply the goal of the game is use those factors that are not dependant on dice rolls (movement, target selection, etc) to stack the odds in your favour when it comes to rolling the dice. It is also important to know that the more dice you roll, the greater the chance of getting an average result, thus the chance of rolling nothing by 1s when you roll two dice is a lot higher than the chance of rolling nothing but 1s when rolling five dice. Over time your luck will therefore tend to even out, even if you can occasionally have a game ruined by crappy dice rolls.
Have a decent idea of what units is capable of
An elementary grasp of mathematics never hurt anyone and often seems to be sorely lacking in some players. If you expect your Gnoblars to do about two Wounds in damage in the close combat phase you may wish to review your number crunching. Spend some minutes with pen, paper and a calculator and will much more easily be able to judge whether or not a heroic charge is likely to succeed or not - a common newbie trait is to be surprised when a small unit of very expensive models fail to defeat a large number of cheaper troops.
To aid such estimates, I have other places on this site many sub-pages (mainly in the Calculations section) that will crunch the numbers for you.
It takes two to win a fight
No, this is not a repetition of the "Don't be a git" part above, it is a reminder that in between each of your turns the opponent has a turn of his own. This is something a lot of players seem to be able to acknowledge at some level, but often seem to forget. Thus charges are set up without considering that the target may move away in the opponent's turn or that a support unit may get in the way. At the start of your turn, think about how you want to move and then try to imagine what the other player would do to counter that. That way you will hopefully get some idea of whether your idea is likely to work or not and you should not end up trying to chase down Dark Riders with Dwarf Warriors. Similarly, you should be able to better see what you can do about it. For example: You want to move your knights into charge range of his expensive, yet fragile infantry. You consider how your opponent would react to this and conclude that he would probably place his Great Eagle in your way, angled to divert you from your juicy target. Therefore, when the shooting and magic phases arrive, you should do what you can to blast the Great Eagle out of the sky.
Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory
There are many ways of avoiding to win a game of Warhmmer. I shall here list some of the most common ones and try to give some tips on how to avoid them.
Lack of decisiveness
A common newbie mistake is to hesitate and do things only half way. Thus
when their combat units are under fire and they need to get across the table
and engage in some brutality they will often only make a normal move at a time,
instead of marching, which gives the opponent more time to shoot him.
Similarly, when they are the player with a good amount of firepower at their
disposal and need to do some serious damage to incoming enemy units, they will
often spread their firepower out too thin, do very little damage to each enemy
unit and not achieving anything much at all.
Avoiding situations like this starts with realising what you need to do and then a decent plan for how to achieve this. It may sound rather simple, but apparently many players can manage the first step but then never get as far as the second.
Assuming that your opponent is an idiot
A lot of tactics articles you will read relies on an opponent being terminally thick in the head to work. Apparently the thinking of the author is that the article will be aimed at beginners and that in that case it is okay to list stupid tactics that will never work against an opponent with half a brain. I am greatly opposed to this - if you are a beginner then you really have a need for decent tactics, since most people you will play against will be more experienced than you are. Stupid tactics should thus be reserved until you are decently experienced and then used against relatively fresh players who thinks that their tooled up super-elite army is unbeatable, as an example of why they are wrong and how easy such an army can be beaten.
Most players you fight against will not be idiots and will not walk into blindingly obvious traps (though of course some will be and will do) if they have any other choice. Let's say that you set up a fast cavalry unit in front of an nasty and expensive enemy unit, placed so that an enemy charge against the fast cavalry (who will flee) will result in said enemy unit being charged in the flank by another of your units in your turn. Against a competent opponent you will not normally end up flanking the enemy unit and decisively beating him, because your opponent will be able to spot the trap and either not charge your fast cavalry at all or flee from your flank charge. Thus, if you do not have any great proof of the opposite, assume that your opponent is at least as clever as you are. When planning a trap, ask yourself: "What would I do if my opponent tried this trick against me?"
Traps are thus more useful because it limits what the opponent can do than because there is any great chance of the opponent falling for it. Thus when placing a fast cavalry unit in front of a nasty and expensive enemy unit, you are limiting his options to either walk into your trap, or spend time going around it, time you can spend shooting at him, for example.
A (second) warning: It is on the whole much easier to defeat opponents who are confident and think they have a chance than opponents who are careful and believe they have none. An opponent who sees an obvious trap blocking his path is quite likely to withdraw to a more easily defended position, where he is harder to get at. Against some armies in particular it can be quite hard to get a decisive win against an opponent who aims to deny you Victory points by hiding his units in places where you can neither shoot or charge him. More subtle traps are thus much better and the trick is to make the opponent believe that he has a decent chance, while you know that in reality he doesn't. In the bait-and-flee example above this could be done by equipping your counter charging unit with a magic standard that increases their movement and placing them slightly out of charge range of where the charging enemy unit is likely to end up. He may then think you have miscalculated and that he can run down your fast cavalry with no risk to himself.
A bigger and even more expensive Death Star
New players will more often than experienced ones construct hugely powerful and enormously expensive close combat units apparently without considering that they may easily be shot to death by enemy artillery or led astray by enemy fast cavalry units so that they actually end up doing nothing worthwhile for the entire game. There are two main ways to avoid this. The first is to not rely on a single, powerful hammer unit and instead take several less powerful units while the second is to take a number of cheap support units to ensure that your expensive main unit is allowed to do what it is best at. I would personally recommend doing both but especially the first if you are a beginner, as the second approach requires more skill. Thus instead of taking a nasty unit with a nasty fighter character to lead them, I recommend having nasty fighter characters lead less nasty units. These units need the assistance of the character much more than units that are nasty on their own, both to boost their fighting ability and to boost their Leadership. In this way, by increasing the number of threatening units at your disposal, you are giving your opponents more units that he has to react to simultaneously and he does not get the luxury of getting to concentrate on only one threat at a time.
Isolated units get eaten
It is much easier to shoot to death or divert a unit that is alone and unsupported than a unit that has several friends nearby. To continue the bait-and-flee example above: If the enemy player can charge your bait unit with one of his support units, he may be able to drive it away and thereby letting his nasty, expensive unit move as it pleases in the remaining moves segment. Or, if he has a missile unit nearby, he may be able to shoot your fast cavalry before it even gets into position. It is therefore important when deploying to take care that vital units you may have cannot be pounced on unhindered because it is placed on the table far from friends.
Some units, though, manage quite fine on their own and some even thrive when alone, particularly if they are quick and / or have some ability that lets them move through terrain unhindered. Such a unit can be deployed far out on a flank, hoping that the opponent will either place units to counter it, units that can be outmanoeuvred with ease, or hoping that nothing is placed to counter it, in which case it can threaten the flanks of the opposing army.
On the whole, though, it is far more common to deploy too wide than it is to deploy clumped too close together and if you are in doubt, gather your forces. This will let far more of your units stay within 12" of the General, letting them use his Leadership, and against a larger army it will let you fight only a portion of the opposing army at a time. Weaker enemy units gain a lot from being able to gang up on individually tougher opponents and if your units support each other you can do a lot to avoid this.
Live to fight another day
Another big difference between a beginner and a more experienced player is that the experienced player will flee from a charge more often and decline challenges more often. Now, neither of the actions I have just mentioned may sound terribly in character for a heroic warrior, but my reasoning is that if said warrior would be above turning tail and running as fast as his boots could take him, he would probably have a special rule forbidding him from choosing to flee from a charge (and, indeed, some units do have such a rule). If it makes things feel any better, don't think of it as fleeing head over heels, think of it as rapidly advancing to the rear. When a charge is declared or a challenge issued, ask yourself this: "What happens if I stand and fight and what happens if I withdraw?" If the answer to the first is "I will probably get horrobly splatted and the enemy unit can then pursue into my artillery", consider chickening out instead. Of course, fleeing is (almost always) a gamble which may or may not pay off and knowing when to do what is essential to being a good Warhammer player. Some skill at maths and / or experience is a great help here.
Similarly, you should always keep in mind that your opponent may know the above and decide to flee from one of your charges, leaving your expensive unit standing out in the open in front of the enemy guns with a worried look on their faces. If he has the option to chicken out he might decide to take it and you should have some kind of backup plan for what to do if this happens.
Reinforcing a disaster
Often, when things go wrong, it is tempting to try and make it better but what you really end up doing is making things worse. A small example will illustrate what I mean: One fellow Orcs & Goblins player was fighting against a Chaos Mortals army and his Black Orcs had been charged by some Chaos Knights led by a decently nasty fighter character. The Black Orcs were losing the combat and while they passed the first break test, it was obvious that they would not last very long. So the greenskin player decides to charge a unit of Goblin Wolf Riders into the rear of the Chaos Knights, hoping to save the situation. What happens? The Wolf Riders fail to even scratch the knights and in return get brutally butchered by the Knights - the Chaos player realising that the mounted gobbos were much easier to kill than Black Orcs and he was thus able to gain a much higher combat result score than if the Wolf Riders had not charged.
The lesson to learn from this is that when things go wrong it is very easy to lose your head and make a rash decision without considering how likely this is to work. It can be very frustrating to have a favoured unit get killed without doing anything to help it, but sometimes there is nothing that can be done and it would be better to try and limit the damage rather than actually seeking to prevent it. A better move in the example above would have been to move other units nearby so that they would not have had to take a Panic test when the Black Orcs were eventually broken, and making sure that the Chaos Knights could not easily charge something else after they had finished mopping up the unit they were fighting.
Aspects of an army
This section of the article will deal with what I like to call the five aspects of an army, namely manoeuverability, discipline, firepower, resilience and combat ability. I believe that by viewing an army with regards to these five aspects you can quickly get an idea of how the army works and what its challenges are.
As a complicating factor, an army's abilities in the five aspects vary depending on the opposing army - a Tomb Kings army with a high number of Liche Priests can have a good manoeuverability until it comes across an army that can effectively shut down the incantations it is relying on.
Manoeuverability - or, to put it in simpler terms, the ability to get places quickly - is one of the most imporant aspects of Warhammer, simply because it lets you get the most out of your other aspects. Good manoeuverability can compensate for an unimpressive combat ability by letting you choose who and where to fight, it can compensate for an unimpressive resilience by making it difficult to target you with anything and it makes a lack of firepower irrelevant since you can strike at a distance by more direct means. Similarly, while it does not directly compensate for a lack of discipline, it becomes less imporant as you will often need to take fewer tests. While manoeuverability obviously covers the Movement stat of your units, it also covers such abilities as Skirmish, Scouts, Fast cavalry and special rules that lets you move through difficult terrain unhindered. How you deploy your units will also affect their manoeuverability, for a wider units takes a longer time to wheel than a more narrow one. Additionally, magical items and spells that increase your movement can also improve your manoeuverability.
Why is manoeuverability so important? Let's say you have a manoeuverable unit X that can quickly get from A to B, beat up some people there and move on to C to do the same there. Unit X is earning you a lot of Victory Points by getting a lot of things done. Meanwhile, the decidedly less manoeuverable unit Y has still not moved very far from A, hampered by failed Animosity tests and a low Movement rate. Unit Y is not earning you many VPs. Armies and units with a low manoeuverability must be very good at some other aspect of the game to compensate. This is sadly often not the case with expensive infantry units, who are hampered by a low manoeuverability and don't have a lot to compensate for it with - they generally have no firepower, are not better in combat than the same amount of points spent on, say, knights, and are rarely more disciplined or significantly more resilient. It takes more skill to use an expensive infantry unit in Warhammer, because the game does not really favour infantry in very many ways and you should be wary of making infantry units that are very expensive as they may quite easily end up not doing very much at all.
A lack of manoeuverability must be compensated for by good deployment. This is because a manoeuverable unit that is deployed out of position can rapidly compensate for this, while a unit that is lacking in manoeuverability cannot. If you have an army with some units that are more manoeuverable than others, I suggest deploying the more manoeuverable ones first. An example of this is my Orcs & Goblins army - my Goblin Wolf Riders and Spider Riders are quite manoeuverable and are therefore deployed before my Orc Boyz units, who have a rather low manoeuverability. In this way, when the time comes to deploy the Boyz, my opponent will have deployed quite a few units and I will have a good idea of where the infantry should go. Another way of dealing with an opposing army that is more manoeuverable than you is through the use of superior firepower, though this must still be combined with good deployment as units with good firepower are often even less manoeuverable than normal. An example of this being Empire Handgunners who can pose a threat to more manoeuverable foes but who cannot move and shoot and therefore have to be deployed well to keep the enemy from staying out of their field of fire.
I would always recommend making an effort to getting a decent level of manoeuverability into your list, as very few armies can win by only standing still. You do not have to take all that many manoeuverable units to get a lot out of them and a handful of fast cavalry units in an otherwise predominantly infantry force can go a very long way.
Discipline is the degree to which you have control over your models and how likely they are to move out of your control. Obviously this covers the very useful Leadership stat, but also a heap of special rules. Animosity, Frenzy, Stupidity and Unruly will lower your discipline, for example, while being Stubborn, Unbreakable or Immune to Fear will increase it. Note that in some ways, having a very high discipline may actually be a disadvantage, as it will prevent units from getting out of trouble when you want them to - a unit that is Immune to Psychology cannot chose to flee from a charge, for example.
Armies with high disipline are easier to work with because they are more predictable than less disciplined armies. In some cases - such as the Immune to Psychology example mentioned just above - this can occasionally be a disadvantage, but on the whole it is an advantage and something you often pay a lot of points for. The advantage of having an army that is actually under your control should be obvious - you get to use your skills as a player to the outmost and you don't have to worry about a failed Fear or Panic test ruining your carefully laid battle plan. A common factor that often helps reduce the problems of bad discipline is a competent General or other character who can lend his Leadership to more unreliable units and sometimes even let them benefit from other special rules, such as Quell Animosity.
The easiest way of compensating for a lack of discipline (other than trusting your luck) is to take many units, so that the loss of one is only lightly felt. Taking only a few, expensive unreliable units is just asking for trouble. Let us for example imagine that player A has two units of 5 Goblin Wolf Riders lined up to charge an enemy war machine, while player B has a single unit of 10 Wolf Riders. The risk of player B not getting to charge in his turn is 1/6th, the chance of his unit Squbbling, while the chance of both of player A's units Squabbling so that he cannot charge is 1/36th. Another way of dealing with undisciplined units is to guide them with more disciplined units. Take a unit of frenzied Chaos Knights of Khorne. They must declare a charge if there is an enemy unit within 14" in their 90 degree frontal arc of sight. That is a very large area and it is easy for a cunning opponent to place a cheap throwaway unit outo to the side, diverting the expensive knightly unit from the path they want to go. The Chaos player can avoid this by for example placing a couple of units of Chaos Warhounds ahead and on both sides of the knights, so that the knights' arc os sight is reduced to a narrow band in the direction they want to go. If the Chaos player wanted to entirely stop the knights from charging something he would place the Warhounds in front of the knights so that the canines entirely blocked the knights' view of the enemy. The risk here is that the Warhounds might get shot in the opponent's turn, demonstrating the use of firepower which is discussed below.
Firepower is the ability to deal out damage at range and generally falls into one of three categories - missile units, war machines and direct damage spells. The most immediate effect of firepower is this: The army that is most vulnerable to the firepower of the enemy army will normally be forced to advance on the enemy, as staying put will mean a loss. On a lower level, firepower is most commonly used to destroy or otherwise neutralise enemy support units and weaken (and sometimes even destroy) enemy combat units. It is important to have some idea of what your firepower is capable of - very few armies can muster enough firepower to win on that alone and firepower is thus most often a support element for your army.
Of the three types of firepower, magic is generally most useful for taking out fragile support units (flinging fireballs at Skinks is always fun), while war machines can put a good dent in most combat units and most missile units are not really very good at either while often costing as much (or more) than the other two types. That is not to say that there are no effective missile units - Empire Handgunners, Dark Elf Crossbowmen and Wood Elf Glade Guard are all quite decent units - but they are not the norm.
As mentioned above, firepower is one response to the opposing army being more manoeuverable than yours and it is worth noting here that while firepower units is one of the favoured ways of dealing with fast moving, manoeuverable support units, fast moving support units is one of the favoured ways of dealing with heavy firepower units. Thus if you intend to shoot his fast cavalry to bits, you need to make sure that you are actually capable of this and that you are not just giving him an easier way of earning Victory points.
Resilience is the ability to withstand and absorb damage and is always relative to how much something costs. Thus a six-point model with Toughness 3 and a 5+ armour save is reasonably resilient, a three-point model with T3 and a 5+ save is very resilient and a twelve-point model with T3 and a 5+ save is not very resilient. Resilience thus works on a model level, unit level and army level. Thus the Ogre Kingdoms army, despite containing Ogres who start at Toughness 4 and 3 Wounds each, is not very resilient, since it will contain quite few such models, usually no more than thirty or so in the average army. In addition to the obvious Toughness, Wounds and armour / Ward saves compared to model cost, resilience also includes such factors as skirmish, which makes it harder to hit a unit with regular shooting, thus effectively making it more resistant to damage. Resilience also varies depending on the attack - a fully armoured knight can be quite resilient towards normal bowfire, for example, while being a lot more vulnerable towards war machine fire, which often ignores armour saves.
Resilience is important because it determines how you play. An army with a high resilience can afford to take risks that may lose them units and do not have to take a lot of precautions against enemy firepower, while less resilient armies cannot. An army with low resilience will therefore generally require more skill to use than one with a high resilience.
A low resilience at the unit level can be compensated for through careful movement (making sure it is difficult to shoot or charge you) or by using more resilient support units (by making the enemy shoot or charge them instead). Continuing the example above, the knight-owner may decide to place a screening unit of fast cavalry between his knights and the enemy war machine, protecting the knights from being targeted. As war machines usually ignore armour saves and have a high Strength, they will often kill the knights just as easily as the fast cavalry. Thus, since the fast cavalry costs less than the knights, they are effectively more resilient towards the war machine than the knights are.
Combat ability is the ability to win the fights you get into and are not just about the combat stats - Weapon skill, Strength and so on, but also just as much about having a high rank bonus, outnumbering and other combat bonuses. A unit's combat result can be neatly divided into two parts: static CR (ranks, standards and outnumbering being the most common) and variable CR (dead enemies). The term "static CR" may be a bit misleading, as all of these factors may change during a game, but they are less dependant on dice rolls than variable CR, which is what separates the two. Some units will have a high static CR while others will tend to have a high variable CR, some units will have neither and some units will have both. New players, particularly if they are young, tend to be drawn towards units that seem like they should be able to get a high variable CR and will often be annoyed when they fail to defeat units with much lower combat stats but a high static CR.
I said that a few units can have both a high static CR and a high variable CR and this is usually done by taking a unit that can fight quite well and then making it very large, so that it will get the maximum +3 rank bonus and a good shot at outnumbering the enemy, in addition to having a standard. I personally do not think this idea is very good (such a unit will usually be very, very expensive) and instead favour combining units with a high static CR (cheap-ish infantry) with units that tend to have a high variable CR (chariots, combat characters, small monsters, etc). Such combinations will often be surprisingly powerful and to quote a Dwarf player whose Thane-led Ironbreaker unit fell victim to a combined charge from a unit of Orc Boyz, an Orc Boar chariot and a small unit of Goblin Wolf Riders in the flank: "That was my best unit and he just ran right over them!"
A lot of the time, average combat abilities can be made a lot better through clever manoeuvering. This is not just the obvious "negating the enemy unit's rank bonus through a flank charge" (high on Avian's list of things that are a lot easier said than done), but just as much about getting your units into worthwhile combats they have a hope of winning. Thus a small unit of Silver Helms will have little chance of defeating a large unit of Orc Boyz on their own, but if they combine forces with a Tiranoc Chariot they will have a much greater chance of breaking the greenskins. It is important to realise as soon as possible that quite average units working together can bring down very tough units that each of them would not have any chance of breaking on their own. As with a lack of discipline, a lack of combat abilities on the individual level can best be compensated for by taking many models and/or many units.
Good manoeuverability is therefore generally essential in addition to good combat abilities and many a large unit of Hammerers have plodded across vast stretches of battlefield without ever dispatching anything more worthwhile than the occasional unit of Night Goblins. In these cases, being known to have very good combat abilities can actually be a disadvantage (some people consider that a hugely expensive unit that gets avoided all throughout a battle has achieved something, but I am not one of those people). The moral of the story is that if you have a unit that can fight well, you must also have some plan for getting it into a worthwhile combat. Often this will be remedied by a combination of good deployment and the use of support units that have good manoeuverability, to draw enemy units within charge range of your nasty yet slow combat infantry.
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