[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?