14 January, 2016

40k Tactics: Threat Bubbles

Threat bubbles are one of my favourite strategic and tactical concepts, because they help to project my vision and overall strategy onto the tabletop and orchestrate the movement of my models, my models' kill-zones and help them avoid coming into harm's way. This article is broken down into parts:

  1. Defining a Unit's "Threat Bubble"
  2. Executing Your Pre-Game Strategy
  3. Coming Up With a Battle Plan
  4. In-Game Strategies
  5. Keeping Your Army Out of Harm's Way
  6. Contingencies 

1. Defining a Unit's "Threat Bubble"

In the above video I outline the basic uses of the concept of threat bubbles in Warhammer 40k, but in case you don't have access to speakers (perhaps because you're reading this while at work -- tsk tsk tsk), or you just prefer plain old text, here's my definition of a threat bubble. Note that I normally think of threat bubbles as being divided into two categories, which is why we have the Shooting Threat Range and the Close Combat Threat Range.

1. Shooting Threat Range: this kind of threat bubble is the combined range (in inches) of a unit's psychic powers, potential movement distance and range of shooting attacks. Put another way, it's:

  • Threat Bubble = range of psychic powers + potential movement distance + range of shooting attacks
For example imagine a group of Grey Knight Terminators with storm-bolters and the Levitation psychic power. Their threat bubble would be: 12" movement in the psychic phase + 6" movement in the movement phase + 24" range in the shooting phase = 42"

2. Close Combat Threat Range: the second kind of threat bubble is usually shorter than the first because assault distances are normally shorter than ranged attacks. In this case the definition is the range of a unit's psychic powers plus the range of it's potential movement, plus the range of it's assault distance. Put another way:
  • Threat Bubble = range of psychic powers + potential movement distance + assault range (normally 2D6)

2. Executing Your Pre-Game Strategy

When I talk about your pre-game strategy, what I mean is your overarching and over-all plan before you meet with your gaming buddy for a showdown. In a sense it's often whatever was going through your head when you designed your list and as such it's an extension of your army. For example let's take a look at this sample Ork warband (the total is around 1420 points).

- Warboss + Power klaw + Bosspole + Cyborg body + Lucky stikk + 'Eavy armour

- 5x Tankbustas

- 19x Boyz + 17 Shootas + 2x Rokkit launchas + 1 Boss Nob + Power klaw + Boss pole
- 20x Boyz + 18 Shootas + 2x Rokkit launchas + 1 Boss Nob + Power klaw + Boss pole
- 20x Boyz + 18 Shootas + 2x Rokkit launchas + 1 Boss Nob + Power klaw + Boss pole

Fast Attack:
- Blitza-Bomma
- Blitza-Bomma

Heavy Support:
- Battlewagon + 4x Rokkit launchas + Deff rolla 
- Battlewagon + 4x Rokkit launchas + Deff rolla 
- Battlewagon + 4x Rokkit launchas + Deff rolla  

Given this list, your pre-game strategy could be:
1. Put all the Boyz  and the Warboss in Battlewagons,
2. Surge forward and fire all the rokkit launchas in the army at opposing AV,
4. Pray for a turn-2 mass assault,
5. Use the Blitza-Bommas as additional anti-AV,
6. Hope there's something left in the end to capture objectives.

It's a simple plan and merely having one could win you games, especially if your opponent doesn't have one, but what would make it much more effective is knowing just how far you can get into the opponent's lines and hope to assault. So let's take a look at the Battlewagons and their passengers' movement phases to see how far you can get by the second turn:
  • Turn-1: Deploy 6" forward + Move 12" + Flat-out 12" = 30"
  • Turn-2: Move 6" + Disembark 6" + Assault 2D6 (approx. 7") = 19"
  • Turn-1 (30") + Turn-2 (19") = 49"
As we can see here, this Ork army can expect to be 49" across the tabletop on turn-2, assuming that the Battlewagons (and their passengers) survived the journey across the map (watch out for flamers if your transports are open-topped!).

The conclusion here is that the pre-game strategy was indeed feasible. Even if you don't get to assault on turn-2, you'll still be have three AV-14 vehicles with 60 Ork Boyz halfway up the field, which means you'll likely be dominating the middle of the tabletop for the duration of the first three phases of the game. Perfect for objective-grabbing! Personally I'd put some 'Ard cases upgrades on them Battlewagonzez.

3. Coming Up with a Battle Plan

While your pre-game strategy was your idea of how you thought you might run things before you even met your opponent, your battle plan is your overarching strategy when it comes to deployment.

You battle plan is different from your pre-game strategy because your battle plan takes into account the fact that you now know (1) what you're up against, (2) if you're deploying second and (3) it takes into account the fact that you now know your opponents' deployment, which will invariably give useful hints concerning their strategy.

As such the battle plan can sometimes be radically different from the strategy that you came up with when you designed your army list. As an example let's take a recent match that I played against my buddy. It was a 1000 or 1500 point game, and my unbound army consisted of:

  • 1 Space Marine Captain
  • 5 Tactical Marines (plasma team)
  • 5 Tactical Marines (melta team)
  • 5 Grey Knight Terminators
  • 5 Deathwing Terminators 
  • 1 Dreadnought with a lascannon and heavy flamer 
  • 10 Imperial Guard veterans
  • 1 Rhino
  • 3 Eldar Windrider jetbikes with scatter lasers

Part of my initial pre-game strategy was to load the Imperial Guard veterans into the Rhino. The Dreadnought would use the Rhino as cover as it advanced, firing its' lascannon while the Marines moved forward, partially using the Rhino and Dreadnought for cover.

When I saw my buddy's army I was terrified to find out that he had a Blood Slaughterer, at least 6 to 7 Chaos Bikers, 40 Cultists and a Helbrute (he also had a Dark Apostle and some Chosen in a Chaos Rhino). Not knowing how I'd deal with this threat I allowed him to deploy first, which really helped me to see his plan -- which was simply to charge forward and take the objectives while slaughtering anything in his path.

As you can see from this image, my battle plan was different from my pre-game strategy. That is to say that I put the melta team of Marines in the Rhino with the Captain, and the Imperial Guardsmen just behind and around the Rhino so they could act as a target and soak some fire. As for the other five Marines and Dreadnought, they would hide in area terrain and use cover in the ruins as much as possible.

End of my movement phase on turn-1

One thing I've learned directly from university (as an anthropology major) is to always look at things from both points of view -- both figuratively and physically. This sounds pretty basic but can be easily forgotten.

Cover during deployment from my buddy's point of view.
Something worth noting, is that by having units whose role it is to soak up fire is that they can act as what I call "assault-nets". In the image below you can see an example, whereby I placed the Guardsmen in a ring around my forces on the burning wreck of the Rhino, thus keeping them in cover. I think I lost one or two Guardsmen, but the round it bought my Marines (as well as the rest of my army) was more than worthwhile.

The rest of my forces were kept in reserves. Of course this was a good idea with the Terminators, but given the shooting threat range of my Windriders (12" move + 36" guns = 48" threat bubble), it was a bad idea with the Eldar (I won in the end, but it was still a dumb move on my part).
4. In-Game Strategies

 As I mentioned about the Windrider jetbikes, it's usually smart to deploy units with a significant range. However let's put that example aside, as I've got another in-game strategy for you.

In the second match against the same Chaos army, I once again let my opponent deploy first. He once again deployment his horde of cultists in the middle of the table and wanted to go for the objective in some ruined buildings in the middle of the map.

Seeing the sheer number of Cultists who were headed for the objective at the center of the board, I deployment my heavy-flamer wielding Dreadnought as far forward as possible, directly across the board from his Cultists, yet taking care to place it behind cover and out of site from his ranged assets.

As he his forces moved forward, I went to work gunning his right flank with my Windriders, five of my Marines and even the Guardsmen were able to participate in the fight by knocking off a few heretics. Hooray for lasguns! 

I then moved my Dread up 6" and got lucky and ran an additional 6". In total that means that by the end of turn-1 I was in the middle of the board, in 4+ cover and ready to take on 40 cultists with a single Dreadnought while camping (1) the center of the table and (2) one of three objectives.
  • Deployment (6") + Movement phase (6") + Run (6") = 18"
Having a Dread in cover, camping an objective and ready to take on a horde -- this is the kind of thing I'm talking about when I talk about "black holes" in Warhammer 40k.

5. Keeping Your Army Out of Harm's Way

This is something that's fairly simple but goes back is easily illustrated by going back to look at how I use my Dark Eldar venom spam.

If my army is mounted in seven AV10 vehicles with 2HP, but has a 48" threat range (12" move plus 36" firing range), then that means that I want to avoid or take out anything with a range of at least 48" first. Thus in this example I'd find myself targeting things like Devastator squads first and foremost before moving onto other targets. In this instance what I'm talking about is target prioritisation.

Another way of keeping your units out of harm's way by using threat bubbles is simply to calculate your opponent's threat range. For instance if someone has a pack of Flesh hounds of Khorne charging your lines, you can calculate their 12" of movement (ignoring difficult terrain) plus their charge range. If your units can't outrun the dogs, then once again they may become priority #1.

6. Contingencies

I can write, play and blog all I want about threat bubbles but ultimately they're just "one tool in your toolbox" as Wargamer Fritz likes to say. Deep strikers (such as drop-pod lists and Dark Eldar webway portal shenanigans) can really mess with your battle plan, so keep them in mind. Likewise consider how deep striking assets (such as Terminators) can benefit from threat bubbles.

The obvious disadvantages of most deep striking elements are (1) that you don't know when they're going to arrive and (2) they're likely to scatter. If you're interested in knowing more about deep striking elements and making use of reserves, I've got a video for you all about it.

What do you think? Have I missed something? I'd like to know your thoughts and opinions so please let me know if you agree with my ideas, disagree with them or if they've helped you in any way, and how they helped.

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