One of the most appealing things, if not the most appealing thing, about playing Imperial Guard is all the cool tank options we have now. The new codex contains no less than 19 major and minor types of armored vehicle. Which really is a tread-head's dream. And given what I see as the general trend towards more and more mechanized lists in competitive 40K, all those options should serve the Guard player quite well at tournaments.
However, as I've transitioned my old infantry-heavy force over to a mostly-mechanized one, I've also been concentrating on how to play my armor better. And one of the things that's become more and more obvious to me lately as I improve my tactics is that most non-Meq 40k players don't have a clue how to use their tanks. I played a Tau force recently that had the ability to hurt me in an objective mission, but he was timid with his armor. And so I crushed him when I should have had a real battle on my hands. Later that night, I watched as an IG player was setting up for an annihilation mission with a spearhead deployment vs. Necrons. He lost that battle before a single die was rolled by putting his Russ (with bolter sponsons, snow plow, and heavy stubber) in the rear and sending his infantry forward to fight the T-800s.
Why is that bad? Let's consider, for a moment, the history of the tank.
The first tanks were invented during World War One as a way to break the stalemate on the Western Front. Due to the advent of heavy artillery and the machine gun, the war had bogged down into trench fighting, where hordes of infantry and mounted cavalry would be cut down as they tried to rush across the No-Mans-Land in between the opposing trench lines (Sound familiar?). The first tanks, which looked much like the one from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (only much slower) were invented as a way to cross that deadly gap safely and shoot up enough of the enemy for the cavalry and infantry to advance in behind them.
In WWII, the tank got a lot faster and really came into it's own as a way to hit enemy strong points quickly. Allowing the infantry to advance behind them and mop up. In Desert Storm, this was taken to the extreme. The Abrams tanks (think Russes) would kill the dug-in enemy armor and roll right over the Iraqi trenches without stopping. When the Iraqis came out to shoot the Abrams in the rear, the line of Bradleys (think Chimeras) advancing behind them would chew them to pieces. Behind the Bradleys came the foot troops, who got to guard the prisoners.
See the theme here? Tanks are offensive units, not defensive ones. They're meant to advance and take ground, not hunker down in a trench waiting to get shot. Their purpose is to rush in and take control of the field. Without it's mobility, a tank is just an expensive gun emplacement. Which moving tanks simply drive around and hit from behind.
So in 40K terms, your tanks should be moving. Pushing force into your opponent's face and disrupting their nice, leasurely advances. Tanks that don't move are just overpriced artillery. If you want an armored pillbox that shoots, save some points and buy Hydras, Bassies, Griffons, or Medusas instead. Sitting back and shooting from cover is what they're made for.
Tanks need mobility. And staying mobile means not taking sponsons. Now I know that saying this triggers all sort of crazy forum arguments about lost firepower and "wasting" the new Armored Behemoth rule. But that's shortsighted. Mobility is just as much, if not more important than firing. As the following battle report shows:
Do you see how awesome Tau Pirahnnas are? Do you see how dangerous they are to you when used effectively? My last opponent kept his in the corner of the table and traded fire with my Sentinels. I'm sure he couldn't understand why I was shooting half my army at his Pirahnnas instead of at his Hammerhead, which he also kept in the back. I shot the Pirahnnas up first because he could have run them up and completely blocked the objective I needed to grab. Giving the rest of his force some badly needed time to chew me up while the Pirahnnas popped the Chimeras I brought in from reserve on turn 2 with their fusion blasters. But no, he kept them in the corner where they did nothing for him.
Keeping Russes, Hellhounds, or Chimeras in corners or behind infantry is just as wasteful. So in that spirit, let's run down a list of all the things you can do with a mobile, sponson-less tank. When we're done, I think you'll agree that sponsons are a waste.
1) Block Off Objectives
Tanks are big, blocky things that are hard to get around. Much like the Pirahnna example above, you can use this to your advantage in objective missions by putting them in the enemy's way. So feel free to put a Chimera in the middle of the pass that Land Raider needs to get through on it's way to your objective. If you fill that Chimera with Vets that are toting 3 meltas, they may even kill it. Note that blocking works equally well in annihilation missions when the enemy's objective is your infantry line.
2) Intimidate Infantry
The enemy can't take an objective with foot infantry if they're too afraid of a Russ or Hellhound to even advance on it. If you're sitting in the middle of the table, they won't be advancing at all.
3) Hug Cover
As forces maneuver around each other, fire lines change. A mobile tank can shift it's position to hug whatever cover is between you and the enemy's mobile threats. And conversely, it can maneuver to deny cover to a target. You can also back up 6" and fire as that scary assault unit moves towards you, whittling them down.
4) Provide Cover
Got some squishy infantry that needs to stay alive? Put a wall of steel between them and the enemy's fire.
5) Frustrate Assault Infantry
A tank that doesn't move is hit automatically in HTH on it's rear armor. So an immobile tank is usually dead in the same turn it's hit by an assault squad. A tank that moves just 1" per turn is only hit on a 4+. That's an immediate 50% reduction in your enemy's HTH assault threat. A tank that moves 7" or more (I'm looking at you, Mr. Hellhound!) is only hit on a 6+. That's a whopping 83% reduction in your enemy's HTH threat. In practice, this means that tanks moving 1 - 6" will survive a HTH charge with only moderate damage. While tanks moving 7" or more are nigh invulnerable to charges. So, ALWAYS move your tanks, even if it's only 1". Just get in the habit of doing it every single turn.
6) Push Troops Around
Go read the section in the main rulebook on Tank Shock. Now imagine what 4+ tanks working in tandem and moving 7+" could do to a unit of Nob Bikers. Sure, they've got Ld10. But if you make them roll enough dice, the boxcars will come for them. And even on fearless troops like large Ork mobs, TS has it's uses. Got a big horde unit that's spread out? Just roll a Hellhound up either side and squish them together into a nice little huddle before you dump the promethium on them from both sides. Or run two Chimeras straight through the middle and force them into two halves that are 8" apart. They'll then have to waste their movement regaining coherency while the Chimeras are free to shoot up the units they were screening.
7) Chase Things
If you make something big and nasty run, like that 700-point unit of Nob Bikers, you want something of yours to stay within 6" of them so that they can't rally before they run off the table. A Chimera or Hellhound works best for this, but not if it's sitting in the back of your line behind the grunts.
8) Taunt the enemy into poor choices
This can take many forms, but I'll give you an example from my last game. I had 2 Chimeras and a Hellhound advancing on the key objective at the start of my opponent's 2nd turn. He should have shot these up with everything he had. His best weapons on that side of the board needed a 5 to glance AV12. Which was do-able.
But, I gave him a more appealing target instead. My Demolisher and Russ were in the middle of the board shooting down the other side at his Crisis Suits. Which were much less of a threat to me given their poor positions. So I "goofed" and moved my Demolisher backwards 6" away from the Crisis Suits. Which gave my opponent a cover-less side shot at it that was "only" AV13, meaning that he needed a 6 just to glance me.
When he noticed my bait he went "Oooooh!!!" and fell for it. He was so excited! He hit the Demolisher with a bunch of S7 shots but couldn't get a single six. However, he did roll roll 3 fives, which would have done something to the tanks that really mattered to the mission.
So... where should you deploy your tanks?
If we're talking about Russes, they go in the front. Preferably with hull lascannons for popping transports and heavy infantry with a nice BC/LC combo on the move. You know that big obstacle in the middle of the table? The one that you're always cursing because it spoils your fire lines? Put them in cover behind it. Then move them out to either side on turn 1. Boom! No more safe zone. Your goal here is to control the middle field and force hard choices on your opponent in turns 2 and 3. If you keep them moving, they'll live at least twice as long on average as a Russ with sponsons that's sitting and waiting for an assault unit to charge it. If your opponent advances on the Russes, don't back up into your deployment zone. Try and give him ground laterally instead. That will split his forces and dull his advance, giving your line more time to shoot. Pay attention to his AT threats. If he has too few or they're in a bad position, you have a lot more freedom to roam around.
Nine times out of 10, Chimeras and Hellhounds should be kept in reserve. This keeps them safe until you really need them and allows you to not only keep coy about your intentions, but to stay adaptive to changes on the field. Just make sure you leave gaps in your line for them to enter through.
When you bring the Chimeras on, move 12" and pop smoke. On the following turn you can move 6" and start shooting things up with your multilaser/vet meltas. The hull flamer is there to scare assault troops, and to fry hordes or threats in cover. You're not "losing" the heavy bolter because you're only going to fire one weapon or the other when you're moving anyhow. Remember also that your passengers can fire 5 weapons at a separate target from the transport itself.
When your Hellhounds arrive, move 12" and start blasting away (Remember, they're fast vehicles.). In fact, this tank has absolutely no business moving less than 7" per turn. You want a multi-melta on the hull for killing Russes and Land Raiders anywhere within 36" of your table edge. The Inferno Cannon is there to BBQ infantry after you've popped their transports open.
Well, that's it. I'm sure that better players than I could add more to this. But this post should at least get you thinking in a useful way about how you're using (or not using) your armor. Once you've kicked the deadly sponson habit and gone mobile, you should see a lot more wins.
Update (December '09)
I stand by most of what I've said here, but I do need to update some things based on my experiences since writing this article.
Hull Heavy Flamers Are Useful On Demolishers. Maybe Even Mandatory.
Even in an aggressive game, your Russes are going to have a hard time not ending up in the back of the pack. So the lascannon loadout still makes a lot of sense for them. But a Demolisher is going to be closer to the action. Not in their face (if you can help it), but usually just behind the Vets in Chimeras, lending close-range fire support. So more and more I've found that I prefer putting heavy flamers on their hulls. In many of my recent games it's even been the heavy flamer, and not the Demolisher Cannon, that killed more enemy troops.
And I'm just crazy enough to fire both at an enemy if I get the shot. :)
I'm also not quite as gung-ho about putting all my Chimeras in reserve. But I almost always leave one or two in reserve so I can react to unexpected thrusts by the enemy.