Thursday, March 02, 2017

Do Formations Have A Place in 40K?

So, Nick over at The Burning Eye blog recently posted his thoughts on formation in 40K. I haven't really read many other peoples' thoughts on them but Nick is very much in favour of them. This post is intended as a counterpoint to his post. I'm almost completely against them but bear with me whilst I explain why.

A Little History
I may have this all wrong but to my mind at least, formations first appeared in general 40K (as opposed to Apocalypse) in the form of Spearhead which was released in White Dwarf in June 2010 and later published online. It's a bit shocking to me to find that this idea has been around so long. These formations were only available at an additional cost. For example, a Tank Hunter spearhead cost 60pts and gave 1-3 vehicles in the formation the Tank Hunters special rule (duh!).  The formations in spearhead were quite literally formations, in that the vehicles had to stay together to benefit from the special rule(s) and counted as a single unit. They also got the "Spearhead" special rule which was essential PotMS. In my experience, they were rarely ever used. The extra cost was probably the deterrent in most standard games.

Right, at this point I realised that Michael Corr has already written an excellent history of Formations and his thoughts on them so I don't see the point in rehashing what he's already done. You can read it here.

Read that? Great. Now onto what I think. Like Nick, I want to look at some of the popular attitudes to Formations and explore why I disagree.

What's wrong with the CAD anyway?
The CAD has been around for a very long time (back to 3rd edition). We never really knew it as that until recently though. Before then it was simply the Force Organisation Chart or FOC. The main issue that most people had with this was the so-called "Troop Tax" where you had to take two units of troops before you could add anything else. You also needed a HQ but most of the time you wanted one of these anyway.

The main problem I had with the Troop Tax was that you were basically fine if you codex had decent troops. For example, I had no issue taking Grey Hunters for my Space Wolves. For a long time they were considered the best troops in the game by a lot of people. Other armies weren't so lucky though so you'd often sunk a decent chunk of points into some near useless units before you could spend money on toys. To me though, it did at least mean the armies were reasonably fluffy. Rather than a Space Marine army composed entirely of dreadnoughts, you'd need a couple of tactical squads in there. We can argue about whether that's much different but it always felt like at least the armies weren't too outrageous.

The other issue with the CAD is that you were limited to just 3 of each of the special units. That meant you couldn't totally spam the insane units. I'm aware there's a little nostalgia going on here though. I still remember those Grey Knight armies in 5th edition with 12 psyfleman dreadnoughts and about 25 razorbacks (maybe an exaggeration). Still though, there was structure and you knew roughly what you were getting when you faced a particular army.

Looking back now, I don't think the Troop Tax is a problem. I mean, these days they get Objective Secured which can be very powerful in what are often Maelstrom missions. The other thing is that at least there's a drawback. Granted for some armies the points cost is low but you'd need to spend some on troops before you got what you really wanted.

Where are the "taxes" now?
Looking at the formations today there are still some which require you to take units that you wouldn't normally take. The Tau Optimised Stealth Cadre gives you a reason to take both Ghostkeels and Stealth Suits which outside of the formation are only of limited use. Where's the tax though? Yes you're taking units you wouldn't necessarily want to take but the pay off is so great that you don't care. In fact, I doubt anyone would run either unit outside of the formation. It's just that good. My issue is there's very little downside to it.

It's a criticism I have of 40K in general. Some armies seem to have been given powerful units but at a cost. For example, Thunderwolves are great but each model is a minimum of 40pts and with TH/SS is 85pts. That's a pretty hefty chunk for something with two T5 3++ wounds but those S10 AP2 attacks on a fast platform make it worthwhile. In other armies the downsides are different. A Dark Eldar Venom is pretty powerful, 65pts for 12 poisoned 4+ shots at BS4 on a fast skimmer is fairly awesome especially with a 5++ save. However, AV10 and two HPs mean that they're pretty straightforward to take down for most armies. So you're getting something powerful but flimsy. I think in general the Dark Eldar codex is pretty well balanced. If everything goes right and you play the army well it could be devastating. Well, that used to be the case, I think in the current game they're just too weak and unreliable. There are also certain units in there that are pretty much totally useless such as Wyches and Hellions.

Compare that to something like Tau where pretty much every unit in the book is useful. It's difficult to see how any formation based on the Tau codex could have something considered a tax.

Formations aren't bad at higher points levels
I hear this argument quite a bit. I think for the most part it's probably true. The same can be said for certain units too. An Imperial Knight in a 1,000pt game could be devastating but a single Knight at 2,500pts probably isn't much of a problem. If that's the case, why not limit Formations (and superheavies for that matter) to Apocalypse games like they used to be. Obviously no one is forcing you to use formations in your games (and we rarely do) but there's a temptation there that means in tournaments it's hard to resist. You want the best army you can possibly put out there and that means formations most of the time.

The problem is that events have to restrict army selection to prevent people taking a shopping list of the best formations in their codex. Being told in great detail what you can and can't bring puts people off a tournament.

Are formations just part of a bigger problem?
To me, formations are just a symptom of what is already a bloated game. I used to be able to show up at a tournament, look across the table and have a pretty good idea what my opponent's army is capable of. I'd probably know most of the units, their rough statlines and their special rules. There was a time around 5th/6th where I genuinely felt I knew the rulebook and the vast majority of the codices inside out. This was partly because Matt and I owned most of the armies between us but also because I was running Blog Wars and had read through most of the rules for most of the armies and even the FAQs.

It was about the time that GW switched to a weekly release schedule that I started to struggle. I'd been doing codex reviews on this blog up until Skitarii hit. That was the first book I didn't really dig deep into and I still don't really know enough about the army today. There's the odd unit I've come across in tournaments that I'm more familiar with but generally speaking I know nothing about the army. The same is true for Genestealer Cults and Deathwatch.

The trouble is, I think it'd be nearly impossible for me to find the time to read and digest all the material that's out there now. In fact, when I'm playing my armies now it's already difficult to remember where the rules for a particular unit can be found.

Formations are probably the worst thing in this respect. Obviously there's a lot of them in their respective codices but there's also some from Start Collecting boxes, campaign books, White Dwarf, supplements, etc. There's even some that are only available direct from GW when you buy a particular bundle (although admittedly they seem to have stopped doing this).

Where on earth would a new player even start? Some of the books that these formations were published in aren't even in print any more. I used Wulfen for the first time at the weekend (battle report soon hopefully) and their rules are in Curse of the Wulfen which you can't get a copy of outside of an eBook. Fortunately Matt has a copy of the book itself but it's still frustrating.

I could say a lot more about this but I think I'm starting to ramble. My main issues with formations can be summarised as follows though:

  1. They're basically shopping lists to encourage sales of new units - I'm not naive, I know GW is in the business of selling models but some aren't even subtle.
  2. There's no real downside most of the time - units you would probably take anyway just get better for no really good reasons. Why not make the units themselves better instead?
  3. They over-complicate an already complex game - it's hard enough to remember the standard rules for yours and your opponent's units without remembering formation rules. How often do you forget your warlord trait for example?
  4. They don't actually add variety - they might mean you see some units you wouldn't normally see on the table but they fast become the norm. They're too auto-include for some armies. Would you consider writing a competitive list for your army without certain formations?
Ultimately I'm not a fan of the direction 40K is heading. It's all well and good saying that they're just giving you lots of options and you can play the way you like but it's getting out of hand now. When I'm considering running tournaments I'm put off by thinking about all the possible lists and whether some of them are too strong to permit. I hate telling people what they can't run but equally I hate the idea of someone having a miserable day at my event because they came up against something filthy. 

Again, I know this is GW trying to sell models but if people wanted to use Formations and Super-Heavies they could do some in Apocalypse. That means games over a certain points limit could include whatever they wanted. Apocalypse should be no holds barred 40K. 

Is it a case of don't hate the game, hate the players though? There's nothing new going on here. 40K players have always tried to find the most powerful stuff and spammed it. Taken the most filthy combinations and shoe-horned them into a legal army list. One the one hand it's impressive that people can find these combinations in this sea of rules but I can't help but wish for a simpler time. 

I'm planning on playing in the Doubles at Warhammer World in April where people can take pretty much whatever they want (including Unbound). It'll be five games against random opponents and will hopefully give me a chance to gauge just how bad the problem actually is. These events aren't normally overrun with power gamers so if the average players are using dirty combinations then I think it's safe to say it's a problem.


  1. I kinda agree as I posted already, I think they are bent, but less broken at higher points cost, or higher points battles. Limiting the "Skyhammer" to only annihilate a quarter rather than half your army on turn one... Apoc had formations which cost arbitrary amount of points, maybe in 8th this will come to help balance? But, you are correct, GW is in the business of selling the newest uber units and formations and taxes help them do that, so I don't think they'll go away :(

  2. I agree that they add to an already gargantuan set of special rules and few people can know every formation and special rule these days. I do like that they can give different functionality to armies and let people play games slightly differently. Are they overpowered? Quite often. But then I have run the OSC against CAD Eldar and lost on more than one occasion. Formations are not an auto win and often a basic CAD played well will steamroll special formations. And then there are armies that have just gotten formations (*cough* Blood Angels */cough*) that are quirky but by no means game breaking. Fast Scouting Land Raiders and Predators sounds fun but tanks just die in the current meta so the chances are that formation will last a turn or two.

    I could stand to lose formations but I think certain armies would just be unstoppable with just a CAD to choose from. Tau I think would lose much of their (overrated) power if they lose all the rules their 'decurion' gives them, for instance.

  3. I have always loved the idea of faction detachments rather than formations and formations of formations. The Baal Strike Force is still something I constantly use because it is super fluffy giving Blood Angels +1I for the charge and access to an extra elite while taking away ObSec.

  4. Very nice counterpoint post Alex (and thanks for the shout out on my article!).

    I really am torn when it comes to formations. Some are incredibly fluffy and make for fun games, others are ridiculously overpowered and make strong armies even stronger.

    I think they can be toned down a bit at some tournaments by changing the tournament rules. One thing that annoys me at events is that tabling your opponent gets you maximum points. This gives very little incentive to play the mission when you know you can simply wipe out your opponent to win the game without having to go after maelstrom points or objectives. That's why I liked the Blog Wars and Birthday Bash formats so much, as you actually had to secure the objectives and score maelstrom points to win, tabling your opponent wasn't an auto-win.

  5. Rather than post up another article on the subject, I think it's reasonable to say that you and I won't ever agree on this point Alex, but I do have a few points to raise regarding what you've said here - they are mainly a matter of perspective of course!

    As for the CAD, it's still a very efficient way of writing an army list, it's the only way some armies can gain access to objective secured for example, but it's also a very flexible way of writing a list (and my latest list uses it as a base). I like that it isn't the only way to write a list however. I don't like unbound, and think that should never have been a thing, and should be removed, but with codex specific detachments you have more restrictive ways of building a force that benefits your army in different ways. Demi Company for example will always play the objectives game better than a decurion or a hunter contingent.

    I'm definitely going to disagree on the point about the OSC though - the ghostkeel in particular is well worth taking without the formation, and the formation itself is taxed by the need for its units to stay together. The way to beat it therefore is to spread your units out and it becomes far less effective.

    By the same rule, my experience with thunderwolves tells me they're still undercosted even at 85pts - their speed and resilience combined with the unique way they get S10 thunderhammers means I've never seen them not kill way more than their points in a game.

    Whilst I agree that formations are relevant to apocalypse - apocalypse games themselves in my experience are very rare because of how long they take to play, and if formations are properly balanced (not all of them are I accept) then they shouldn't need to be so restricted.

    I do find it interesting that one of your concerns is keeping up with things. I think this is very much a matter of perspective, because you have been used to knowing a lot about the armies out there. I've never had that, having only had a couple of codices at a time and never reading round the other armies. As a result, I don't think anything has changed in my games, because I've almost never been familiar with my opponent's armies.

    I totally agree with you in terms of everything being too spread out though - I'd like to see all the formations collated in a free pdf on GW's website, so that the codex is the only source of info on stats, but the formations refer back to it and are freely available. It's not only formations that struggle with this though - in my game last night we realised that the only place you can find the bastion rules is in stronghold assault, which is no longer available.

    As I said, these are all just my views on things, and are no more right or wrong than your own, but i think a lot of the brokenness of armies is more down to allies than formations.

  6. On the whole I think formations are fine. My concern is that some of the formations give already good units something for nothing.

    A good example of formations are the new aeldari ones, which include multiple units (so if one unit may be under pointed the whole formation as a whole is ok). Another is the Firebase Support Cadre you gain an ability but you have to fire every model in the formation at the same target risking overkill.

    On the other end is many other Tau formations, such as the Drone Nets > take 4 units of drones they and all other drones (BS only for the other drones) in your army is just better. Another bad example is the Riptide Wing > take 3 units that are already good and you mitigate one huge weakness (taking wounds from nova charging) and give them a buff (bonuses to hit if previously targeted by the formation that shooting phase). The Riptide Wing is so OP that it turns up in other armies where the only Tau that is allied in is the Riptide Wing.

    The Riptide also has another reason that its bad for the game. If one particular unit is under pointed or overpowered then its only 200-300ish points that mis pointed, but the Riptide Wing can be up to 9 Riptides, that means you can have (without upgrades) 1620 points that overpowered.

    All these issues could be solved without throwing out the concerpt of formartions:
    1) Give formations points costs
    2) Limit how many of the same unit can be in a formation that leaves the unit selection open
    3) Not allow formations to be duplicated

    However with all this I still don't think the formations are the most exploitable thing in 40k. For that I think Battle Brother allies are. I think all allies should be Allies of Convenience at most. It removes deathstars showing in random (special) characters for USRs/abilities, and casting psychic abilities on allies.

    What do you think is worse formations or battle brother allies ? Do you think formations as a concept is bad, or just the way GW has implemented some of them.


  7. The problem for me isn't the concept of Formations as such. A lot of them are really cool, and do a good job of representing things that are present in the fluff, but hard to do well in a CAD. The issue for me is the relative few of them (like the Riptide Wing, Aspect Host, and Librarius Conclave) that take already good Units and give them extra bonuses with no tax.

    There are a ton that are perfectly fine, or even underpowered, just like everything else GW does. For every Riptide Wing or Librarius Conclave, there's a half-dozen like the Tyrant Swarm or Ogryn Auxilia. It's not really any different from the power difference between CAD Eldar or Daemons and CAD Orks or Nids. Formations or not, those matchups will only end one way. The Formations are just one aspect of GW's failure at game balance, and far from a game-breaking one.



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