[WFB] The Theory and Practice of Asymmetric Warhammer

Did the treacherous Wood Elves ambush the noble reptilian defenders of the Great Plan, as the sacred plaques reveal? Or did the savage Lizardmen betray their great purpose and set about their would-be elven saviours with claw and tooth and approximately a hundred and twenty little blowpipe darts?

We had a bit of a Koom Valley situation on this week as Ben S and I took the Ambush scenario out for a spin. 1000 points of attackers against 1500 of defenders and then we’d swap sides and do it again from t’tother side of the ratio.

This doesn’t have much to do with anything, but it’s the first time Ben’s Stegadon has lived to do its job.

The games themselves weren’t massively notable, one all with very one-sided Victory Point scores to be had, and so a conventional report isn’t really worth the bother. What did come out from the post mortem, though, is how we both felt the scenario was a really rough one for the attackers to pull off.

I’ve played enough of these asymmetric encounters now – these two, the Woodland Ambush earlier this year and Reclaim The Stones the year before – that I’m starting to get a feel for them, but this one really got away from us and I want to spend some time thinking about why.

Partly, this was down to the points values. I wanted to avoid having a 2000+ points army on the defence, as that Lord choice and second Rare were clearly going to tip things, but went too far down the scale. 1000 points isn’t really enough to get anything too expensive in, and both of us found that on the attack, it was Core units with a high yield of Attacks that did the business.

Ben’s Saurus were his last surviving unit on his attack, and would have ripped the core out of my army if not for some subpar pursuit rolls stranding them in point blank range of my Glade Guard (two units of ten, on a hill).

One inch makes all the difference. Especially to those ten Lizardmen who used to be in the back.

On mine, the Dryads and Glade Guard were the only things left of my army by the top of turn three after a dud overrun-and-clip brought the Wild Riders into intimate contact with Mr. Scar-Veteran and twenty of his best mates.

My Unicorn had decent odds of squashing Ben’s Scar-Veteran,
but even that wouldn’t have tipped the static combat res. tally anywhere good.

Both lists had something in them that was eating up a good third of the available points by itself – my Wild Riders and Spellweaver, Ben’s Saurus and Scar-Veteran – and if that unit underperformed it was basically game over, boys. Small WFB games can be pretty swingy if there’s a point sink on the table and when you factor in how heavily the attacker is outnumbered that swing can be impossible to come back from (the odds already being against them).

Underneath that, there’s a layer of difficulty with the scenario itself. Warhammer armies aren’t generally built to split up across the entire width of the battlefield, and the Ambush forces the attacker to place at least a third of their army in each available deployment zone. The game is entirely decided by Victory Points for killing stuff – no table quarters, no standards, no dead generals – and runs for a comparatively conservative five turns, so the attacker really has to go in hard and establish an early lead before the defender’s superior numbers kick in.

This is what I tried to do on my attack, and I ended up with my usual Wood Elf weakness of units blocking each other out or not being able to support each other (although in my defence, I did set up some decent supporting charges that just ended up blocked by an uncooperative Unicorn – I think I still hate Ridden Monsters).

Shown here is the consequence of being blocked out of an otherwise well-placed backup charge.

Some asymmetric scenarios are meant to be skewed, of course. The Last Stand and Holding the Tide are the way they are because the defender is meant to sell their lives dearly – if they score their own cost in Victory Points they have done a sterling job. The Battle of Newberry Pass (ask your dad) is strongly rigged in favour of the smaller force by giving them depth of field against an inefficient attacking army with a bottleneck to move through. It’s meant to do that as the smaller force is meant to be forgiving, effective, and easy for a new player to pick up how moving, shooting and fighting work. The Battle of Ironaxe Ridge (same again, buy him a pint) gives the huge attacking army no room to mess up its deployment or movement so the defender has a fighting chance.

Ambush doesn’t have any of that built in – it’s a much more open affair that might need co-operation and curation between both players at the list building stage (which should be the case with all wargames, especially at our age, but old habits die hard).

The Wood Elves look like they’re in a good place here, but one hasty move later it’s the Lizardmen’s game to lose.

Neither Ben nor myself really tailored into the scenario beyond building lists of the appropriate size. His defending force was probably better equipped, with a Stegadon to terror-bomb and impact-hits-bully its way through the Wood Elf line and two units of Skinks to bubblewrap his most important and expensive stuff; my attacking force didn’t really have an answer to the Stegadon’s Terror and I threw the Wild Riders away on a badly aligned “gotta start scoring instead of getting shot at by 22 blowpipe darts again” charge.

Now, my lack of experience and patience with the Wood Elves is definitely showing here (wait, you say, for the opportune moment, because my troops can’t reliably stick and grind until reinforcements arrive? sounds fake) but when we swapped sides I similarly beansed up my early moves, giving away two early charges and yet – this is the crucial point – still managed to table Ben. The same player can make the same mistakes but as defender has a whole lot more breathing room to recover from them.

Three-way charges lead to a bit of a pile-up in the old “flee and pursue” stage of play too…

So. If you’re going to approach an asymmetric scenario like Ambush, there are a few things to bear in mind. You’ll have to consider:

  • Context of play. What are the victory conditions and what do they represent? Does the outnumbered force have a reasonable chance of achieving them or is it too easy for points to sit in places that make the outcome a foregone conclusion? Consider a Woodland Ambush against any Undead or Daemon army, where the scenario’s balancing factor (failed Panic tests yield bonus VPs) evaporates and the Wood Elves must more or less play to table with half the points on hand.
  • Points balance. I think 1200 vs. 1800 is about right for Ambush. Nobody has extra power choices available on the defence and the attack has enough points for a couple of hard units and decisive plays. By contrast, Reclaim the Stones plays much better as a 2000 vs 3000 point endeavour because the bucket of extra magic dice the defenders get really helps to close the power gap. You’ve got to look at what the armies can do with those scenario rules, which brings me on to…
  • List balance. The attacker needs bang for their buck – a high yield of attacks from cheap, reliable troops, and nothing even passing for a death star) and space to answer game-skewing questions from the defender (i.e. is there a really high Toughness unit, something that’s Unbreakable or causes Terror, or really brutal short range shooting that will force the attacker to circle instead of striking?)
  • Player skill – running the smaller force is often not for the faint of heart nor the weak of mind and if there was ever a handicap option for the veteran against the newcomer, this is probably a good candidate.

Have I missed anything?

[WFB] Homebrew: The Silver Host

Allow me to explain.

What with one thing and another, I’ve spent some time looking at the Desert of the Dead range from TTCombat again. Basically, I want to fuss my Tomb Kings army, losing the brittle and frustrating Mantic figures and replacing them with TTCombat’s single piece resin jobs. I already own and like a bunch of their elite figures, so it just seems to make sense.

But that range also includes a lot of things that aren’t from the sixth edition Tomb Kings range. Some of them are newfangled eighth edition units, various sphinxes and so on, but some of them are… well, very Vampire Countsy. Like the Sphinx Hounds, and the Slaves, and that Jackal and Ox Cart that could have wandered out of seventh ed. Vampire Counts.

And that got me thinking. I own a Neferata model. I also own a Vampire Counts army which I love playing, but it doesn’t travel well. And I started wondering if the same collection could, with a bit of clever expansion, be a Tomb Kings army and a new Vampire Counts army. And that started me thinking about the Lahmian army list for sixth edition, which I want to like much more than I do.

So here’s an army list I knocked together for the Silver Host, the guardians of the Pinnacle, formatted after the Army of Sylvania and taking the opportunity to tidy up the old GW website rules for Neferata a little.

Let me know what you think?

[WFB] Fragments, inter alia

Lords

The Master – Master Necromancer – magic level 4, Talisman of Endurance, Feedback Scroll

Heroes

Margarita di Maddaloni – Vampire – shield, Biting Blade, Nightshroud, Aura of Dark Majesty, Dark Acolyte

Cora – Banshee

Clarice – Banshee

Core

Company of the Black Eagle – 39 Skeletons – champion, musician, standard bearer (Screaming Banner)

Templehof Pals – 20 Zombies – musician, standard bearer

5 Dire Wolves

5 Dire Wolves

The Local People – 10 Ghouls – Ghast

Special

Order of the Black Cross – 8 Black Knights – champion, musician, standard bearer

Black Monks of St. Herod – 1 Spirit Host

2 Bat Swarms

Rare

Crimson Order of the Dragon – 4 Blood Knights – champion, musician, standard bearer (Rampager’s Standard)

Lord Ruthven’s Repose – Black Coach

Total: 2000 points on the dot


The above represents a good faith attempt to recreate my fifth edition army list in eighth edition. The conditions of construction are as follows:

  1. the List is to avail itself of newfangled opportunities where possible (the Skeletons deploy in Horde formation, the off-colour Knights receive a vampiric upgrade)
  2. the List is to respect the necessities of the edition (a level 4 wizard and a secondary Lore of the Vampires caster)
  3. the List is to preserve the character of the original (Margarita as off-caster doing something useful for the army and helping out with wolves, Lord Ruthven as “absent presence” in his Black Coach, with the core units providing further continuity)
  4. the List must be constructed with models I already own (hence none of the “only in eighth” goodies like Terrorgheists, Mortis Engines or Crypt Horrors; while I like these things well enough they are dramatically out of keeping with the late-Nineties/early-Noughties aesthetic of the army as it stands and also I’m not buying them)

There are things I’d consider jimmying about. I’d like a magic standard on the Black Cross (even if ’tis but a War Banner), and I could go for Beguile and Summon Creatures of the Night on Margarita if I had more Dire Wolf models. I would also consider the Rod of Flaming Death instead of the Nightshroud, because I find that item hilarious (and it has a lot of battlefield control potential!) and the Banshees are just there for nostalgia’s sake, I could easily replace them with something else (in which case I would change out Margarita’s powers and the Skeletons’ magic banner and stop trying to make Fear happen).

I know it’s somewhat idiosyncratic. I wanted to avoid the photocopy special (Ghoul King Dragonbane Gem Red Fury blah blah Terrorgheist Mortis Engine yawn yawn Ghoul Horde fiddle fart) and instead try to uphold the spirit of the army as it was originally created.

This mania has in no way been inspired by the extended narrative on offer at Big Small Worlds, an exhaustive and quietly competent Warhammer campaign played under eighth edition rules that’s been occupying a lot of my screen time lately. Not at all.


“Why are you doing this instead of painting Wood Elves, Jonathan?”

Well, because it’s festival season, which means pop up book stalls, which means a lot of extra work for muggins ‘ere and I don’t really have the mojo to paint when I get home. This week I’ve been playing Total Warhammer instead, because it’s there and the vampire factions have received a little bit of a retool (not quite enough to make me enjoy Count Noctilus’ early game, but enough to get me over the midgame hump of Sylvania and into a position where I could win a campaign if I put a weekend into it).

I have every intention of getting back to the Wood Elves in September, once two out of three festivals are done with and I have a nine day streak off work. I’ve acquired the necessary materials to produce a new general, some Wild Riders and an additional Treeman in time for Resurrection II in November, and intend to give those units a good crack of the whip. Beyond this there are sixteen Dryads, another ten Eternal Guard and two Great Eagles to paint. I have my eye on a final character (further exploiting the scale difference between Citadel and North Star figures to make my heroes truly “heroic scale”) and I’ve just lately discovered that the Oathmark range is about to develop some cavalry figures, allowing me to add Glade Riders to the assembled Covenant.

Nevertheless, a comforatable “done” is in sight for the Wood Elf project, probably around the 3000 point mark. It’ll all depend on how they perform at Resurrection II. There will come a point where a chain of defeats no longer forges a narrative worth the hearing, and if I sustain another brace of defeats there’s every chance that something slightly more cadaverous in nature will turn out for the 2022 season. See, Warhammer: Resurrection is to expand into a biannual narrative weekend as well as a heat-heat-final series of tournaments, and this expanded arena may be able to contain certain larger-than-life personalities who’ve been on the outs for a couple of years now…

Rumours of his death? Exaggerated.
Rumours of his retirement? Premature.
You can’t keep a bad guy down…

This is what’s on my mind at the moment, Warhammer-wise. As well as maybe liquidating some of the Tomb Kings. I wonder if I don’t like the idea of myself as a Tomb Kings player more than the reality of it, and I still don’t feel in love with the Mantic models, whereas Oathmark’s plastics and the TTCombat resin elites do speak to my soul rather more. Oathmark’s figures are also a fat sight easier to paint in the classic dip-and-go style and that might be what I need right now.

Another option would be breaking the habit of a lifetime and paying someone to paint them for me. If anyone knows a reasonably priced tabletop standard commission service, lemme know in the comments. I can supply several cans of my own primer that I’d be very glad to get out of the house.

[WFB] The Deadwood Covenant: After Action Review

I mentioned in the last post that I wasn’t sure, at first, whether I’d had a good time at Resurrection, to the extent that my good lady wife asked a yes/no question and got a two minute “errrrr” of an answer.

This is nothing to do with Alex, who pulled out all the stops and put on a very good show, wrote up a bespoke scenario pack to make sure it wasn’t three rounds of kill ’em all Borehammer on the Saturday and actually hosted a twenty player narrative campaign event with a map and themed tables and considered scenarios and everything on the Sunday.

Neither is it anything to do with Hammy, who hosts a fine venue at Battlefield Hobbies. The main room was a bit too crowded and loud for my taste and comfort, but the side room where I spent most of the day was fine, and it can’t be forgotten that I’m an outlier in terms of personal space and background noise and so on. Bit of a bugger to get to if you don’t drive, but again, that’s not the venue’s fault is it?

It’s certainly nothing to do with my opponents, either. No, the trouble resides squarely between me and my toys. I have a lot of trouble getting the Wood Elves to work.

Overview: the Fundamental Problems

Before I do a unit by unit review I think it’s worth looking at some recurring problems I’ve had with the Wood Elves on a slightly higher plane. The three biggest ones so far are magic, leadership and combination of force.

Magic has been an issue because I’ve run into magic heavy forces and have had to prepare for them with the idosyncracy of my “only one Scroll” principle in hand. To be fair, it’s only been the Skaven and the Tzeentch Chaos where I’ve felt totally overwhelmed going in and they do that to everyone. The problem in most of the games has arrived later, when one of my wizards has thrown her life away and the other has run like hell off the board.

I can address this by stroppily refusing to play games below 3000 points (an option which has often tempted me, to be fair) or separating out my characters’ roles a little more clearly so that the main provider of Dispel dice isn’t also the front line challenge hunter. She’s dead now, in the story, so I have the perfect opportunity to work on this.

Leadership has been an issue because I’ve played more games with Vampire Counts than anything else, by a factor of about ten, and my most successful side armies were Slaanesh Chaos and Tomb Kings. I am simply not very good at avoiding taking Terror or Panic tests, or coping with the Fear factor when it’s something being used by someone else, on me.

I imagine that this will come around with practice, if I can be arsed practicing and don’t just switch back to Tomb Kings with a sigh of relief as my considerable weight hits the crutch again. The point is that at the moment, some of my games are falling apart because of crucial Leadership tests.

(There’s an issue sitting behind these last two, as well, kind of linking them both. Because I’ve been taking a Branchwraith as my general in narrative games, and a Spellweaver in the competition capacity, in order to keep my magical defences solid, I generally haven’t had access to the best Leadership values going at any points value. Ld 8 in a 2000 point army is particularly rubbish. I’m all in favour of the narrative approach, but I don’t subscribe to the Stormwind Fallacy and I am going to get a better story if I don’t get my twiglets kicked in all the time.)

Combination of force, on the other hand, is more of a usage issue. On a good day, I can line up the Glade Guard and angle them correctly so that two or even three units can cover a field of fire and concentrate their sharp pointy bits into the enemy’s soft woundable bits. What I struggle with is getting the combat troops to back each other up properly, break ranks and score flanks or provide the raw kills necessary to turn a combat around. I never seem to get two of my units onto one of theirs. This sucks, because it’s the Forest Spirits that really made me want to do this army and they need to gang up to get shit done.

Various people have patted me on the head and said “it’s a learning curve mate” or “you just need X” (where X is normally some variant on Wild Riders, Warhawk Riders, Glade Riders or anything else that moves faster than five inches per turn) but that’s list tinkering and I think there’s a more fundamental issue at work here. All of these M5 units could play nicely together but they end up spaced too far apart, because I’m having to weigh their positioning against setting up good fields of fire for the Glade Guard. The melee units end up blocked in or lined up into bad matchups because they’ve had to go down where there’s space. It might be worth leading with them in the setup and then putting the archer lines down behind to clean up.

I’m not saying I won’t be painting five Wild Riders quick sharp, but this is something to think about on a level above and beyond “what’s in the list.”

Full Teardown: piece by piece review

I’m shamelessly ripping off the Woffboot lads’ format for this. Go ye and read Woffboot if you’re into eighth edition WFB or contemporary 40K or you just like to see a bunch of gamers making their own fun.

Lords

The Druid

The good bits are the two Dispel dice, the Leadership 9, and the Lore of Life, which is definitely reaching out and touching people. If I’m on a table without a wood or not playing a Pitched Battle I’d argue he’s essential.

The less good bits are the Rhymer’s Harp and the Eternal Guard bunker. Moving through terrain came in moderately handy against Max, but I don’t really need another unit that can do that, and having my General and my Battle Standard tied down in one unit means they can do things like fail a terror test all together and cost me the game, as they did against Paul. I started bunkering him in with them because he kept dying when I left him on his own, but I only lost Bloddeuwydd to Panic tests all the way through the weekend so maybe the games with Ben were more of a fluke. Or Ben just hates me having fun and wants to kill my wizzos.

Either way: he level 4 can stay, but his kit needs a coat of looking at.

Verdict: I’m Necessary Evil

Prince Hywel

I love this guy. Granted, I threw him away in the game with Joe because I was in a bad mood, but he still did a lot of work with the Hail of Doom across both games and he can absolutely mix it up with any chaff that gets into my army (as he did in the game against Brendan). The only downside is he eats my Lord slot without passing Leadership 10 onto the army or doing anything to help magically; that’s quite a high opportunity cost.

In narrative terms, it might be both wise and appropriate to have him shake off the curse of Deadwood and rejoin the kinbands so he can hand out Leadership 10. There’s nothing stopping me taking the Bow of Loren and the Hail of Doom on a Lord…

Verdict: 100% Reason To Remember The Name

Heroes

Gilfaethwy ap Hywel

I had to try it. The Alter Noble / Bow of Loren / Briarsheath combo is just very evocative. It’s Legolas gone feral. It’s… not bad, but it’s not brilliant either, it doesn’t add enough to the army to be worth the Hero slot in a 2000 point game and certainly not in a 1500. As much as I want to field the whole family together, he’s benched outside of scenario play.

Verdict: You’re Good, Boy, But You’re Not Good Enough

Gwydion ap Hywel

I dropped a Great Eagle to give this stupid boy a decent save and then he doesn’t need to take one all the way through the event. Anyway, the reroll remains extremely handy with only a Leadership 9 general and it’s absolutely vital if I only have a Leadership 8 one. The thing is, taking the Battle Standard renders him ineligible for anything else I need (no Kindred upgrade, no Hail of Doom, he does nothing to help in the Magic phase), so I feel he needs the Eternal Guard along so his Leadership is good for something and stacks up with their Stubborn.

Verdict: Don’t Drink, Don’t Smoke? What Do You Do?

Bloddeuwydd ap Hywel

Being saddled with the Lore of Athel Loren really holds our girl back. As a defensive wizzo who chucks out some novelty Tree Singing she’s good enough. The one thing I’d lose is the Deepwood Sphere; I really want to drop its tricksy trapsy secondary effect but nobody ever voluntarily moves into a wood against a Wood Elf army and if someone’s in her wood she’s probably about to run away from them. Calingor’s Stave is probably a better bet but I can’t guarantee woods in away games, and I don’t face enough 4-dice casting to justify the Divination Orb. I think I’d rather have a second Branchwraith, but I do want to play around with her some more and I have a good story beat in mind.

Verdict: Unfinished Business

The Maven

I love the character, but a single Branchwraith can’t cover the “Dispel dice generator” and “aggressive interference” roles. She can lock down a Hero or even an unprepared Lord indefinitely but her unit invariably gets slaughtered and takes her down with them, at which point I’m also out two Dispel dice and the whole house of cards starts crumbling.

Now that she’s dead I’m farming out her responsibilities to her successors; the new Maven will probably have a more castery build and I’ll put together a second Branchwraith for going out there and mixing it up.

Verdict: Gone Girl

Core

Kinbands of the Black Briar

The Glade Guard are great. Possibly my best unit, in terms of damage output per point expended. I need to stop deforming my whole battle line around them but they’re doing good work. In particular, the unit of 10 deployed 5 by 2 with the War Banner surprised Joseph and might have come in very handy against Brendan if I’d been a bit more aggressive with them.

I got those in by dropping the Scouts and I have no regrets about dropping the Scouts. While they are perversely hard to hit with shooting, so are any skirmishers. They lose the solid short ranged Glade Guard bow effect and frankly on most battlefields there isn’t that great a place to Scout them, so they end up paying 25 points to be slightly less good at shooting things and drop last (giving me fewer drops during the early stages when I’m being out-deployed).

Verdict: Some things in life are priceless: for everything else, there’s Glade Guard

Cildraeth Eiddew, Cildraeth Celyn

I love Dryads. I absolutely love them. You would never guess this from the way I treat them in battle. They work far better as disposable 96 point disruptors about which something must be done than they do as any kind of effective combat unit in their own right, and I don’t think I feel too bad about bailing the Branchwraith out of them and letting them sort themselves out. Frankly I could go for another unit of these just so I could be sure I had some where they needed to be.

Verdict: You and I, we were born to die

Special

Kinband of the Pale Rose

Their sheer weight of attacks means they can’t be underestimated against soft targets, the problem is getting them into a soft target to begin with. I like them enough to keep them around but they aren’t tough enough to work as a death star and treating them as a bunker for an expensive magic user who happens to be my General and a Battle Standard Bearer who they need to be around in order to do their thing is a little bit much. I think they and Gwydion need to spend more time together, but also to figure out what they’re doing with themselves in terms of the army as a whole. Also, I need to finish painting them properly.

Verdict: Boy, Decide. Boy, Decide…

Brawdolieath Pren Mawr

Not only do these 40mm fartarounds either die first in every game or see off something a third of their cost and spend the rest of the game doing nothing, they take up so much space in the battle-line that they’re putting everyone else off. I think they have a role but probably not in my army the way I’m currently playing it. Despite their extremely tidy paint job and overall very fine aesthetic they are finally on the way out. I’ve also given them a name I can’t consistently pronounce, spell or even remember, so fuck ’em.

Verdict: If Looks Could Kill… you lot would still be in the army list.

Rare

Uchelwydd

God, he’s good. Someone (hi Matty) keeps asking me why I take a Treeman and I have to ask “why don’t you?” This big log has held up against everything I’ve thrown him into – nothing has ever actually managed to wound him unto death, although once he’s in combat with any ranked unit he tends to break and run sooner or later. Stubborn on 8s is good but it’s not Unbreakable and I need to stop expecting it to be. He’s more dangerous when he’s roaming around causing terror and doing Strangleroots to things than he is in a scrap unsupported, and until I figure out my mutual support problem that’s the best use for him.

Verdict: My boy – look how they massacred my boy…

Where Do We Go From Here?

Well, I already have five Wild Riders waiting to be added to the team, and I’ve also picked up another Sylvaneth “start collecting” box this weekend. That gives me a second Branchwraith, so I can let their potential breathe a bit instead of jamming it all into one character; it also gives me a second Treeman. I’m sure I’ll get some stick from this on the Facebook groups but a) most of you already go off about Wood Elves on principle so I might as well earn it and b) I wanted to play the Drycha army, that’s where I came in to all this.

I plan on building a very bread and butter army: Glade Guard and Dryads, a couple of Branchwraiths, a couple of Treemen, an actual cavalry unit, and… I need to find a strong central character that isn’t an Alter Highborn to hold it all together. I have a couple of ideas on that front.

I’m hoping this will be a more compact army that doesn’t have the mutual support or leadership issues I’ve experienced so far, and that a passive role for a Branchwraith will keep my defensive magic game up for longer.

This would be an ideal build for Monstrous Mayhem, all things considered, maybe with a Lore of Beasts Spellweaver at the heart to tie it all together, but sadly I’m not going to make it. The recent bouts of hobby enthusiasm have meant I spent the same £50 four times in three weeks and that has to be made up from somewhere. I shall have to sit this one out, lick my wounds, get a couple of local (thus cheap) practice games in when Firestorm’s new gaming hall opens and come out swinging for Resurrection part II in November.

[WFB] Warhammer: Resurrection I, Day 2: The Campaign (2/2)

“Seems to be going well so far,” said Rarbuik, from his side of the wagon.

“We’re a good four days from Kazad Urkbavak,” said Dougnec, from his, “and another half day to Karaz-a-Karak. Uphill, too, and probably in the snow.”

“It’s the middle of bloody summer,” said Rarbuik. “We’re going through the pass, not up the bloody mountain.”

“Stop your bloody swearin’,” said Fargon. He was the older member of the crew, and he’d not taken his sunhat off since they set out. “And watch the road.”

“Barely a road anyway,” said Rarbuik. He wasn’t entirely wrong. They were, more or less, following the course of the Skull River; though the shipments usually went by boat, the whole conceit of the operation depended on every wagon being a wagon, and easy to mix up, even if you were some halfwit goblin with mushrooms where his brain should be. Of course, the shipments usually went by boat because you had the Badlands on one side of the river, big nasty orcs down that way, and you had the Forest of Gloom on the other, and no bugger wanted to go in there if they could possibly avoid it. Even if it was a bit thin and scrubby this far south, it was still trees, wasn’t it?

“I told you to stop your bloody swearin’,” said Fargon, and Rarbuik realised he’d been thinking aloud for the last two hundred yards. Then he stopped, quite abruptly, because there was something on the road ahead of them, just peeping over the horizon.

It was a tall, black, pointy sort of something. On a stick. It looked a bit like a giant X-rune, with horns on and bits on the side. And it was bobbing up and down in a very threatening way, like… someone was carrying it. Upright. While they were marching.

Rarbuik thought he’d better mention it.

“Anyone else see that?” he asked.

“Anyone else see them?”

Dougnec was already scrambling onto the wagon. With his free hand, he pointed due west: sure enough, there was another banner pole (for such it was), borne in the armoured hand of a rider in black, who’d brought four of his friends along for a jolly gallop in the country by Rarbuik’s estimation. Rarbuik had a quick shufty off to the north, just to check, and it looked as if there was some kerfuffle going on up there too: lots of braying and bellowing that didn’t sit easily on his ears, and then there were the animal noises answering the Norscan voices, too.

“Get on the back of the cart, lad,” said Fargon. “We’re goin’ through.”

Rarbuik didn’t quite get on the cart. He would have, but something had settled on his hand, and was settling on the cart too, where it didn’t disappear quite so fast in the heat. It was snowing. It was bloody well snowing at midsummer, as if to prove Dougnec right.

And then, from the raggedy edge of the Forest of Gloom, the screaming started.

Act Two: “You call that soup? This is what I call soup…”

Back in the relatively chill side room for my last game of the weekend, against Brendan Sparrow and his jumbo tureen of Chaos Undecided. This was exactly the kind of game I enjoy. Brendan’s a lovely chap, quiet and contemplative and working things out aloud as he goes along so you can take the game as a conversation and smooth things along toward a nice refreshing conclusion. Also, his army was savage when I stopped and thought about it.

Chaos Lord, with the Mark of Chaos Undivided; Aspiring Champion with the Battle Standard and the Mark of Khorne; two Wargors, one with the Mark of Slaanesh and a Scroll, one with the Lore of Shadows and a Spell Familiar. Then a unit of Chaos Warriors (Mark of Khorne), a unit of Chosen Knights (Mark of Slaanesh), a Chariot (Chaos Undivided, nothing fancy) and screening Warhounds; a Beastherd, some Furies, three Minotaurs (Mark of Nurgle) and a big block of Dogs of War Norscans with flails.

When you break that down, that’s two blocks of Frenzied infantry, six casting and six dispel dice, a unit of 1+ save cavalry that cares not for psychology so you will have to kill all of them, some flying daemons and skirmishing bait and blockers with a 4+ save, and probably the two best spell lores Chaos can get. It’s an all round list with a lot of tech to it and, in a Breakthrough scenario, it has a lot of threats that can potentially add up to a win.

Despite this, I came out swinging. I was determined to even the odds by the end of the day. Whatever else happened, this one was going to go the distance. It did, and by all the gods of the bloody great wheel it was a cracker.

I don’t know if I want to write it up as a story or a conventional report, because so much happened. I’ll try and do both, and hope it all makes sense somehow.

Ahead of the Black-Briar, the spirits of the Deadwood made their stand; time was needed for the arrows of pact-pledged to reap their toll, and time they would have. Uchelwydd strode to the fore, the dry soil cracking under his every tread. The Brotherhood of the Pact turned to hold the flank against hoof and iron. And from the trees the Maven shrieked her war-song, hate and fury and wounded pride dragging the dying trees in her wake.

Although Strangleroots didn’t do them any damage, the Minotaurs advanced into short range of all the Black-Briar and rapidly learned why that wasn’t the best idea. Even the Mark of Nurgle can only soak so many hits.

Blood. Iron. Pain. Hunt. Kill.

There was more to Hywel’s thoughts, but the struggle was always there. The forest had taken him and sent him back; touched him and changed him. Always its simple will pressed back his own, inexorable as the seasons.

This was why he did not lead. This was why he dared not lead. The Maven was cruel, but she was sane. Saner than him. She had tricked him and he had no right to rule, not now. What folly would he lead them to next? What choice had he had?

No. These thoughts were poison. The forest had a simpler way. Pain? Hunt. Kill.

This was why he stood, now, with half an army before him; his bow took shape from his wooden flesh, and he nocked a single arrow from the empty air.

Two knights fell. It had begun.

I ummed and ahhed about this, but there was nobody I trusted to clean up this flank more than Hywel. The Hail of Doom might have been better used against a lighter unit, but I figured forcing through as many S4 hits on the Knights from the earliest possible moment was my best chance at bringing them down. Two kills from fifteen hits, against that armour save? I’ll take it.

Steady, steady, steady…

The beasts would come. The beasts would throw themselves upon her lines in disarray. The beasts would bring themselves to her…

Yet hatred stirred in the Maven’s heart, and she knew she must kill. Had she vowed vengeance and the breaking of bones to do nothing? Had she been trampled to sawdust to stand idle now?

I really shouldn’t have done this; I should have made the bait go around or keep the Norscans blocked. I think in my heart I’d chosen to roleplay the Maven as if she now hated Beastmen, after all the kickings she’d had from them lately; I also admit to wanting to win a round of combat, so badly. Charging the obvious bait might have been a good idea, chasing them down was absolutely not, but I had hatred in my heart even if it wasn’t on my character sheet.

Next would be the winged ones, the false-kin of the skies. They swept down on wings of spite and coward’s courage and fool’s hope – real enough to fly, real enough to fight, but Hywel could see them for what they were. But when your sword is the winter’s cold fury, the hard ground and the hoar frost, made every bit as real as these poison thoughts in flesh, they die soon enough, either way.

Mister Magic Weapon is introduced to the Furies. It goes as well as can be expected. I really wanted to give him the Sword of a Thousand Winters but I don’t want to load any more gimmicks into this army; it’s already struggling without the burden of nonsense.

This one led them! This one defiled! This one tore his skin from the bones of the earth! This one would pay!

But as the Maven’s scythe spun and danced in her hands, as his blows were caught by haft and crook, her sisters were dying again. Heavy iron met faerie flesh. Every blow that landed was execution.

I mean, what actually did for the Dryads was, as ever, static combat resolution. They really need a friend who isn’t a skirmisher like them, but I cannot get these units that all move five inches a turn to line up and fight nicely together for some reason. There’s a Minotaur in their flank, who killed two Dryads and wasn’t helping matters any, but at least they managed to kill him in return.

The little sister was dying again.

Uchelwydd sighed heavy, planted roots deep. Sometimes he regretted answering the call; why had he not slept the winter away like all his brothers? Eternity in a curse-bound slumber was starting to sound like a relief.

There were men, in steel skins. They had axes. Uchelwydd roared his rage, and still they came on; yet as they came the roots burst the ground beneath them, and one-two-three-four, four fewer axes to bite.

After a lacklustre show so far, Uchelwydd’s Strangleroots does ten hits to these oncoming Chaos Warriors. That would be a panickin’, in a less sensibly constructed list. They did their best to sink some wounds onto him, but I don’t think they even brought him halfway down. If I could back that big log up properly he’d be a superstar: as it is, he’s my best unit right up until he breaks, at which point the game has usually given way around him. I think I might want two of these.

Hold the line.
Save the wood.
Serve the Maven.

They had all made the Pact. They had all sworn the vow. They were brothers in endless service; ghost-flesh, dead-wood.

There was something coming. It struck the line. A spike of steel cut deep.

The Brotherhood of the Dead Wood closed ranks.

There wasn’t something coming any more.

Brendan was spectacularly unlucky with his Chariot charge; the impact hits didn’t really wound much, the crew missed, and the horses were struggling to make a dent on T5 Tree-Kin. They whomped it to matchwood, as you do, but were functionally out of the game at this point with nothing left to charge or hold the flank against.

Arrows had flown and the forest had sung. Many a beast had died, many a throat had been pierced. The Maven was trampled in dust, but she would rise as she always rose; curse as she’d always cursed; endure, as the bitch always did.

Bloddeuwydd didn’t know where that thought had come from. How had that malice, that murder-lust slipped into her mind? The Maven was not to be trusted – the Maven had done something, long ago – but what was done was done, and the Maven was their only hope, then as she was now, as it ever was.

Gilfaethwy stood beside her, arrow after arrow springing to his hand, nocked to his bow. He struck from the shadows, again and again – until the shadows struck back. In a whisper and a flicker and a flurry he was gone – just like that. Only darkness remained. Only darkness, and the Black-Briar trembled and knew fear in the dark, and they were gone.

I’ve been quiet about it so far, but after the initial “two dice three spells never works out” conversation, Brendan was dominating with his magic. Luxurious Torment is such a subtly nasty spell; it takes control of a unit away, it inflicts damage right through the game, it has to be dispelled up front or you’re stuck with it because it doesn’t Remain in Play, and… arse biscuits, I’ve just realised it also renders the unit immune to panic, so these Glade Guard should be standing proud and trying not to froth at the mouth too much. I know they’re immune to panic when they have frenzy, I just forgot about the frenzy in amongst the d6 hits every round. Still, man. Slaanesh/Shadow. The perfect combination.

There was little left. Still the arrows flew, from the quivers of the Black-Briar. Still steel shuddered, still men fell, but not enough, not enough. Still came on the men of the North, and still the shadows and whispers were all around. Blodeuwydd felt it welling up in her cold ensorcelled heart; the heat, the burning heat. She trembled where she stood, on the edge of this forest in a foreign land; her lips parted and she moaned, helpless, pinioned by the gaze of the One Who Thirsts.

There was only one thing to do, and she did it. She shut her eyes, flung back her arms, and hurled herself forward into the embrace.

She was dead before she fell from the Lord of Chaos’ outstretched sword.

Kharnak the Usurper didn’t even break his stride.

With the demise of Blodeuwydd, forced to charge the Chaos Lord by yet another casting of Luxurious Torment, things were looking very bleak. I did everything in my power; Standing, Shooting, praying for numbers, but I couldn’t quite kill the last of the Chaos Warriors or even one of the Knights. Unseen Lurker catapulted the Brayherd into the lines as well, and altogether that was just enough points to get Brendan the win. Barely.

He reckons if I’d had Hywel charge into his Chaos Hounds and overrun into the Knights I’d have got it, and it’s hard to disagree (although I think I threw the game a bit with that Dryad charge, too). I think there was a reason why I didn’t: maybe the overrun angle was bad. Nevertheless I had the movement to reach the Knights and should have encircled them rather than pulling my most powerful aggressive fighter back to the centre where there wasn’t much left to do.

Other than that, a delightfully tense game, never a grim word said or grumpy face seen. This sort of thing is what we pay the ticket money for.

Defeat for the Wood Elves once again, but we sold our lives dearly, almost to the last elf. Oh, and I lost my general again, so…

Death for the Maven! Death for the Maven for One Thousand Years! I’m fine with it; she’s had enough lucky escapes from being locked in challenges while her sisters get butchered around her, and her luck can’t realistically hold out forever. Killing her allows me to move the army’s story forward in exactly the way that this event was designed to do (and justifies a bit of redrawing in the list department as well).

It goes wthout saying that I enjoyed this side of the event immensely: this is the sort of Warhammer I want to get out of bed for, and the tournament day before was really a warm-up for me. I’d have liked to do better, but it’s a new army and one with a lot of unusual quirks compared to what I’ve spent the last eighteen years playing. When I came home Rob asked me if I’d had a good time, and I was all ambivalent and “event was good, opponents were nice, not sure I enjoyed the army.” As I wrote this game up the love came back. That’s not to say I won’t be making some changes, but that’s a matter for the next post. In the meantime, here’s the wrap up in character…

The three dwarfs watched as a tide of shrieking, yammering things poured out of the forest; in their wake, lines of ashen-faced elves in cowls, long bows of new wood in their hands.

For half a moment, Rarbuik thought they’d get away with it. The great lumbering mass of a Treeman planted himself right between the dark horde and the road; the horde of Dryads rushed forward, howling blue murder at the beastmen as they rushed in. On the road ahead, something tall and lean with sweeping horns and a mane of cloudy hair bounded toward the Knights of Chaos; was that a bastard long sword or a recurved bow in his hands, and did it really matter? Rarbuik and the lads weren’t sure it did.

Yet the wave broke, on the rock of Chaos. The Dryads disappeared beneath iron-headed flails and iron-capped boots. The Treeman wavered as they fell, and in his moment of weakness the dark warriors surged around him as he toppled. Still the elven archers stood their ground, but too late, too late.

Rarbuik saw the elf with the horns once more, before the end. He stood atop a little rocky outcrop, surveying the scene; he threw back his head and he howled with an anguish none of the dwarfs had heard come from any living throat.

It was Dougnec who’d seen why, though he wouldn’t live to put two and two together and say so. Dougnec was facing backwards, and he’d seen the elf maiden in her cloak of briars throw herself onto the Chaos champion’s sword with the sort of outcry a dwarf normally saved for a plate of curry and a cold pint.

The archers melted back, into the woods, a ragged handful giving ground before the last warriors of Chaos. The elf with the horns shook his head, leapt from his crag, and followed.

“Bloody perfidious elves,” said Raurbik, and then “sorry, Fargon.”

“Fuck it,” said Fargon. “Don’t think it really matters, now.”

They were coming closer. The old dwarf stood up in the driver’s seat. For the first time since they’d left Karak Dron, he tugged off his hat and threw it down in the dust. With his free hand he coaxed his line of thick, tufty orange hair back upright, or as close to upright as he could manage. And finally, Rarbuik understood what they were doing up here, and why Fargon hadn’t been in any hurry to reach Karaz-a-Karak at all.

“You lads had best be off,” he said. “No sense us all getting done in.”

“What, and shave my head myself for my trouble?” said Dougnec.

“Like you said,” said Raurbik. “Fuck it. Right?”

“Good lads,” said Fargon, and took the reins tight in his hands. “They’ll never take us alive. Ya mule!”

Prince Hywel never saw the explosion, but he heard it all right. He heard it from half a mile away, and gave a grim nod. Whatever else happened, the Forest of Gloom had been protected. No minion of the Usurper had made it past the old dwarf road, of that he was damn sure. And for the first time in a thousand years and change, he was thinking clearly. What had this wretched Pact ever done for them? His own mind, a prison; his son, his daughter; both dead. And if he ever set eyes on that treacherous spite of a Maven again, she’d regret not staying dead this time