Vampire Counts are an army of contradictions. Their Lords are the most versatile in the game and among the deadliest fighters, but they’re also (mostly) brittle linchpin pieces on whom the rest of the army depends to an unrivalled degree. Their troops are all deficient in some key aspect (even ‘elite’ Undead have decidedly average Weapon Skill) but can sometimes win a combat and break a line without landing a single hit. The army depends on magic, but can only muster above-average casting potential: you will not fight the eighteen-dice Power pool here. Where other armies treat the Psychology rules as a risk to be managed, for the Vampire Counts they’re chief among our weapons.
Here are the very broad and general tactics I’ve settled into over the years:
Opening gambits involve the raising of new units and the aggressive positioning of disposable assets to threaten things like artillery and archers, and bog down the most significant threats in my opponent’s army by drawing them off at a bizarre angle and taking them out of the game for a few turns. The rest of my army advances with Ethereal units taking point, as these block lines of sight and marching opportunities to the best effect.
In the midgame I switch over to more aggressive spellcasting to support a strong push on the flanks, where one or more units of Black Knights are committed to breaking through whatever my opponents have got going on out there, cleaning up units that have been pinned or misdirected by my first wave. At this stage magic is used to tip combats in my favour or to start whittling down the strongest parts of the enemy centre.
Often, the Black Knights will break through but suffer some casualties and be left far from my General, taking a turn or two to get back into place. This is fine, as my endgame turns are characterised by a decisive strike. My General and attendant infantry commit to combat, supported by flank and rear charges from the returning Knights.
In all cases I am looking not to cause mind-slamming casualties but to win combats by just enough that auto-breaking from Fear can do the rest. I don’t rely on Terror but I keep it in mind for when I need to cause a little chaos and break the table up a bit: sometimes it comes through and causes a chain of game-turning psychology tests.
This approach has secured me a pretty much even ratio of wins to losses (in fact it’s exactly even at time of writing – yes, I count them!) but it does have its drawbacks. Armies which do the two inch bumshuffle to stay an eighth of an inch outside charge range can just keep doing that indefinitely, and if the Knights bounce off tough flanks or get deflected by skirmishy nonsense the army as a whole falls apart. Prosecuting a win against these armies relies on Summon powers and movement spells to get just close enough, chuck up a few Invocations behind their lines and force some choices, which is a little too contingent on having and casting the right Necromancy for my liking.
This is why I occasionally advocate for a more aggressive army in which nothing that moves fewer than six inches a turn is allowed to take the field. Dire Wolves and Ghouls in Core, Spirits and Black Knights in Special, the Banshees can stay. It requires killer instincts and better combo-charge game sense than mine to pull off reliably, as it lacks the big stodgy infantry blocks that can hold on and fight by themselves until something else comes along to flank and spank later on, but it does work and with practice it will do very well for itself. (It would also help if I had a mounted character model who wasn’t Mannfred, but all the other Von Carstein cavalry figures are rubbish.)
I have tried, and rejected, the Victory Point denial approach. This is the original “deathstar” army, hanging around a single huge unit in which the bulk of available killing power and Victory Points are concentrated. The idea is to create a unit which will make or break the game. If the enemy can’t destroy it, the best they can hope for is a draw: if the enemy try to destroy it they’ll fail and give the game away.
A full size block of Grave Guard or Black Knights, accompanied by a Vampire Lord and a Battle Standard Bearer, festooned with Banners of Doom (Ward save) and Obsidian Talismans (Magic Resistance), can lock down well over 1000 VPs when the bonuses for killing Generals and capturing Battle Standards are accounted for. The rest of the army is chaff: delivery systems and supporting elements that interfere with the enemy’s efforts to take on the big brick. These armies in my experience struggle against anything which can out-chaff it – with so much killing power concentrated in one place, avoiding or deflecting it ensures a consistent draw.
I am not a great believer in the “all casters all the time” approach (i.e. Master Necromancer in charge and three lesser Necromancers as Heroes, assuming a 2000 point “standard” game). Partly this is a point of principle (the army’s not called Necromancers, is it?) and partly this is personal preference (I don’t like to bludgeon my opponents over the head with one phase of the game – no gunlines, no spell spam and no prancing about “just a millimetre or two” out of arcs and ranges with skirmisher swarms), but mostly it’s because I think other armies do it better.
Skaven can play in this style because all their casters can have Warp Lightning and it’s a frighteningly good damage spell. High Elves can do it because their casters can cherry pick Lores and even individual spells and have Arcane Items that encourage this style of play.
Dark Hand of Death is simply not in the same league as Warp Lightning; Gaze of Nagash and Wind of Death are decent but you’re not guaranteed to get them. I also like to have a General who can throw a punch if necessary. That said, a Necrarch Vampire Count (level 3 wizard, decent fighting stats, access to extended range on the Lore of Death’s most brutal spells and access to five rolls on the chart) can lead an army like this and make it work.