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The Tiger Roars 

Building a Balanced Army
If you read White Dwarf, you’ll often find the writers talking about creating “balanced” army lists—and how That’s A Good Thing, as Martha Stewart might say. “Balanced” armies, they assure us, are the way the Game Was Meant To Be Played. 

Well, what exactly do they mean by “balanced?” What makes one army “balanced” and another “unbalanced?” Why are “balanced” armies necessarily good and “unbalanced” armies bad? And how does one go about creating a “balanced” army, anyway?

I can’t speak on behalf of the White Dwarf writers, but let me offer you my thoughts.

What is a “balanced” army?
To me, a “balanced” army is one that can operate well in any mission against any opponent. It has a mix of troops, characters, and vehicles. It can move, shoot, and fight in hand-to-hand about as well as can be expected for the race that it belongs to. 

For example, a “balanced” Imperial Guard army should be able to lay down a lot of firepower (a typical IG strength), but also have a few elements that can move (Rough Riders, Hellhounds, Armored Fist squads) or fight well in an assault (Ogryns). Obviously, some armies will be better at certain elements than others:  Tyranids will probably be much faster and better in close combat than IG, but nowhere near as “shooty.”  Even so, every “balanced” army should have some of each element.

A lot of people will tell you that a “balanced” army is “fair” to the other player. I often have trouble with that statement: how does one define “fair?” One person’s “fair” may be someone else’s “unfair.” To me, the whole issue of “fairness” should be avoided. So long as they adhere to the rules of their codex, let people play the armies they bought and (hopefully) painted and leave the issue of “fairness” to the game designers. And if you don’t like someone else’s army, politely decline to play against it.

What makes one army “balanced” and another “unbalanced?”
In my opinion, an “unbalanced” army is one that is lacking in one or more of the areas I mentioned above. Perhaps it has very little firepower or mobility. It may have lots of characters or vehicles. The stereotypical “unbalanced” army has the bare minimum of Troop choices and lots of everything else. 

If you ask other gamers, they might say that an “unbalanced” army is one that is “unfair” to the other player. As before, I beg the question. I tend to see “balance” in terms of flexibility, not perceived “fairness.” 

Why are “balanced” armies necessarily good and “unbalanced” armies bad?   
“Balanced” armies are inherently good because they can almost always deal with any opponent, any mission, and any situation that pops up during a game. This is not to say that “balanced” armies always win, but by being flexible, they increase the player’s chance of winning.

“Unbalanced” armies are not necessarily bad. While a lot of “unbalanced” armies are the results of “mini/maxing” (taking the bare minimum of Troops so you can load up on other units), many are “unbalanced” because they follow a certain theme. 

For example, a “First and Ten” Space Marine army might have nothing but Terminators (First Company) and Scouts (Tenth Company). Such an army might not meet one’s definition of “balanced,” but it would probably be fun to play. As you can see from checking out the Themed Army section of this site, you can create some interesting and challenging armies by deliberately “unbalancing” an army to emphasize a certain combat aspect.

I don’t want to go on about “unbalanced” armies, because that swiftly and inevitably turns to topics like “cheesiness/beardiness” and “playing-solely-to-win.”  Not only are such discussions outside the scope of this rant, but they bore me to pieces. For the interested, I recommend my thoughts on “cheese.”

How does one create a “balanced” army list?
At last, the meat of what I wanted to share with you today. Again, I can’t speak for anyone else, but these are the things I look for when putting together what I consider to be a “balanced” army.

The Shooting Element. 40K is a game with guns; your army needs to have some shooting ability, even if you play Tyranids or Orks. Furthermore, you need some anti-infantry weaponry and some anti-armor weaponry. When thinking about what guns to bring, one automatically tends to gravitate towards heavy weapons, but remember that basic weapons are there for more than just giving the model something to hold. While a single lasgun is less than impressive, a huge mass of them will bring down almost anything that doesn’t have an Armor Value (Wraithlords excepted). 

Granted, some armies (for various reasons) are better at shooting than others. But every army should have some shooty element. In one game against World Eaters, my Tigers suffered terrible losses because of the plasma pistols that each Traitor squad carried, making the inevitable follow-up assaults even easier for the bad guys. See what I mean?

The Hand-to-Hand Element. Strangely enough, 40K is also a game with lots of up-close fighting. Even if you play a “shooty army from Hell,” you’ll need at least a few guys that can handle themselves in a brawl, if only to repel attackers who make it to your lines. 

Hand-to-hand elements need not be obvious close combat monsters like Wyches or Slugga Boyz. My Dark Eldar Warriors do very well in close combat because they attack in groups (usually at 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 odds) and soften up the enemy first with lots of shooting. 

The Fast Element. Your army—part of it, anyway—needs to move. Quickly. As I say all the time, “Mobility, mobility, mobility”: if you can’t move, you die. Mobility is crucial to assault armies, downright indispensable to Dark Eldar, and important even to static “stand-back-and-shoot” armies. If you’re going to beat the other army to a pulp in hand-to-hand combat, you need to get your guys there (or wait for the other guy to come to you—provided he’s dumb enough to go for it). If you’re going to hug the edge of the table and shoot, you’ll still need to secure table quarters (or other objectives) and sally forth counter-attackers. 

Again, some armies will have more options or be faster than others. There’s no way Imperial Guard are going to outrun Dark Eldar, but even Guard can get a move on. Also, think of “fast” in terms other than raw speed. If you can infiltrate a unit close to enemy lines or use Deep Strike, that could be “fast” enough for your purposes.  

The Sacrificial Element. 40K casualty rates are appallingly higher than those suffered in real combat. You’re going to lose guys—probably lots of guys—unless you’re much better than your opponent. Your army needs to be able to take a hit and you have to have troops you’re willing to lose. This does not necessarily mean that you eagerly send them to their death (though this can certainly be the case for cannon fodder, like Gretchin or Termagants). But it does mean that you should be prepared for casualties.

As an example, I’ll frequently put a squad of Tactical Marines in front of a Devastator unit to hold off attackers and to “catch bullets” meant for the guys with the big guns. Do I want the Tactical Marines to get killed? Certainly not. But I would rather have them killed before my Devastators. Thus, they are a sacrificial element. 

The “Just-for-Fun” Element. I like to include at least one unit for no other reason than pure amusement. Perhaps the unit is a new vehicle or squad that I want to try out. Maybe it’s a model I don’t get to use often for one reason or another. Maybe I’m trying to emphasize a certain theme. 

The “just-for-fun” element keeps army-building from becoming tedious. Once you discover an army’s strengths and weaknesses, you can get into a routine—a rut, even—of taking the same familiar units over and over because they work so well. By throwing in even one thing “just for fun,” you can renew your interest in your army without too much compromising of battlefield effectiveness. 

As an example, I have a fondness for Space Marines bikes. I think they look cool, but they’re not exactly butt-kickers on the table. But every once in awhile, I’ll include them in an army list “just for fun.” 

Here are a few other things to bear in mind.

Units can act as more than one element. You can assign more than one role to a unit. A squad of Ogryns in a Chimera can be an assault element and a fast element. If you really want to, they can be a sacrificial element, too: the Chimera rushes forward, the Ogryns hop out and hold off a bunch of Hormagaunts, buying your Guardsmen more time to shoot at the Carnifex bearing down on them. 

Use—but don’t live by—the calculator. There’s a tendency among many gamers to run some kind of mathematical analysis on units in their army to maximize “effectiveness.” While math is certainly a factor in 40K, and you would be a fool to ignore it, don’t let it be the sole determinant in building your army. Some units perform better than others do in certain situations, but I firmly belief that there isn’t a single unit in any codex that is “useless.” 

Nothing is written in stone. Even I don’t always follow my advice on building “balanced” armies. If, for gits and shiggles, you feel like not having any hand-to-hand elements in your army, then don’t. I’ve drawn up “all-infantry” lists that ignore the admonishment to have a fast element, and I’ve drawn up “character-heavy” lists that ignore the admonishment to have a sacrificial element. It’s your army, and if you want to experiment or just do something different for a change, go for it!

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© copyright  June 2002 by Kenton Kilgore. 


Fighting Tigers:
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers

Other Pages:
Main <> What's New <> Site Index <> The Tiger Roars <> Themed Army Ideas
Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle