Wargaming and playing the odds

Playing the odds indeed… Wargames tend to be about throwing the maximum dice. Eventually you will roll enough of the value you need to get a success.

Let’s look at the dominant wargame on the market (whether you like it or not): Warhammer 40,000. This game is well over 20 years old and due for its sixth iteration of rules within the next few months. Games Workshop (GW) have refined it from a small skirmish game of a dozen models or less, through a multiple unit size game which gained the unofficial moniker of “Herohammer” due to the overpowering of individual leader models, to what is now well and truly a whole of army exercise. Without getting into the rampaging tirade of hate-on that GW manages to generate for a variety of reasons (some valid, some not so valid) I’ll demonstrate the awful truth of “Playing the Odds” that annoys me so. Be in mind that this post is not reliant on the GW systems – it is pretty much a general statement of all wargames out there.

Let us take the pinnacle of super-human excellence; the Space Marine Terminator. By the background of the game, this genetically enhanced 2.4m tall muscle-bound and dedicated warrior is encased within a nigh impenetrable suit of armour that is in some cases stronger than a tank, being designed to withstand the fires of nuclear generators. It is internally powered, enhances the wearer’s strength, provides atmospheric protection and comes with a number of weapon options that are all powerful enough to decimate an army. In addition it has a field effect on top of its already impressive armour rating.

Compare this fantastic creature with one of the countless members of the Imperial Guard. A normal human type, he is equipped with a light flak armour and a weaponised laser known as a Lasgun (or “flashlight” for those who play the game). His weapon is woefully inadequate when shooting at the above Terminator; imagine using an archaic bow against an Abrams tank. Regardless of the amount of arrows you shoot at that tank, you will never stop it.

Wargames suffer the bane of inserting unrealistic playability into a well defined “fluff”, or background of the game’s universe. Instead of making that Terminator simply impossible to stop with Lasguns, the publishers have instead opted to allow for lucky shots. This means that massed Imperial Guardsmen all shooting at once will eventually cause a hit on the Terminator.

[The maths is based on the following, all using a d6: Requires 4+ to hit; 4+ to wound; requires the defending player to roll a 1 for their armour save: 50% x 50% x 16.6% = ~4% chance for a single attack to get through]

I know this is shoddy maths but without getting into the minutiae of probabilities, it means that if you fire 25 Lasguns at that Terminator, one shot will get through. Now go back to that bow vs tank analogy and fire 1000 arrows, fire 10,000 for all I care. They won’t stop that relentless behemoth of death. It’s exactly the same thing.

Most wargames rely on a this mechanic though: roll as many dice as possible to get the result you want.

It sacrifices realism but allows the player to put whatever models are available on the table. I find myself having troubles resolving the inconsistency between fluff and playability. To be honest, I don’t even think it’s a playability issue either; I think it’s a quick way to sell cool looking models and have them used as something other than a display piece. But does it need to be that way? I don’t think so. Why should Terminators be so readily destructible? Why not have them as an (almost) impossible to kill lumbering demon of destruction? Make Terminators hugely expensive, make their armour impenetrable against mundane small arms fire, reduce the number on the table, but make them such a threat that even an individual model will give the opponent cause to panic.

Of course, this does need to be balanced by the fact that they do need to be stopped! Whilst Lasguns might do no damage, many heavy weapons are designed to deal with foes armoured in such a manner (though normally against vehicles). Focusing fire from weapons teams (cannons and the like) should be the way to deal with a Terminator, not just throwing a unit of 25 poorly armed and equipped men towards him.

There are other solutions, the first of which is to reduce their potency in the background of the game. However, and I agree with GW on this, Space Marines are awesome. They are the pinnacle of (semi-) human existence, bred to be warriors without peer. Each Marine surpasses the abilities of a hundred mortal men, a Terminator at least ten times that. That is how the fluff is written and I believe it suits the game well. Unfortunately when it came down to making the system of rules they become bland and pale reflections of what they should be. But that is a subject of another day…


Afterword: A few years ago Games Workshop came up with the idea of “movie Marines” – appropriately costed and “realistic” Space Marines that could do what they are normally shown to do in the fluff. The concept didn’t last long, and one reason would have been that it doesn’t sell models. Why make these sort of rules and sell one model, when you can make a game that plays the odds but sells twenty? Realism be damned!

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