Monday, April 18, 2011

Sun Tsu And The Art Of Stupid

by SandWyrm

Do you want to sound more intelligent than you actually are when discussing 40K? Do you want to give your half-baked theories an aura of respectability that will shield them from proper scrutiny? Do you want to read an old Chinese book instead of playing actual 40K games and learning from your mistakes? Well, have I got the thing for you. You see, there's this 2500 year old book called the "Art of War" that you can use to do just that.

The formula is simple:

1) Find A Properly Ambiguous Quote

Just open the book to a random page and look for a quote on military strategy that contains no specific information or examples. Quotes such as this one won't do at all:
"Generally, operations of war require one thousand fast four-horse chariots, one thousand four-horse wagons covered in leather, and one hundred thousand mailed troops."
Ugh! That quote is obviously out of date and not applicable at all to 40K. What about this one?
"Those adept in waging war do not require a second levy of conscripts and not more than one provisioning."
Better. I can almost hang an Imperial Guard article on it. But surely there's something even simpler and more ambiguous that I can use.
"The reason troops slay the enemy is because they are enraged."

2) Twist The Meaning Of The Quote Into Something 40K related.

Hmmnnn... Enraged. That sounds a bit like 40K's 'Furious Charge' rule. Orks get furious charge... I've got it!

I'll write some drivel about how important Furious Charge is to an Ork Army. Always be the one assaulting! Never be the one assaulted! Wowza! Ain't I smart? Look! I quoted Sun Tsu!!!

But You're Still An Idiot

The enraged quote above is actually from a part of the book that talks about motivating your own troops by tricking your enemy into maiming their prisoners and desecrating your graves. Can you do that in 40K? Nope. Because being a game, your options are very limited both on and off the field. If the designers didn't think of it, you won't be doing it.

So look... The Art of War is a fun, interesting read. There's lots of old, outdated info on waging war the ancient Chinese way. But there's also a lot of timeless wisdom that will make you think philosophically about the things you already know.

Miss that? I'll say it again. It will make you think philosophically about the things you ALREADY KNOW.

If you're say... a commander of a modern mechanized infantry company, or a corporate executive, or any sort of leader; then reading the Art of War will help you think philosophically about your day to day operations and help you to pull together the separate strands of your knowledge and experience into a coherent whole. To step back from the details and see the forest instead of the trees, so to speak.

But what it won't do is generate new knowledge out of nothing. If you've never been in the army, run a business, or played a wargame before, then you have no trees in your forest to step back from. Without knowing the details of a particular system like 40K, you can't properly interpret what you're reading in that context. Because the examples and commentaries used in Sun Tsu's book to illustrate the concepts are all about ANCIENT CHINESE WARFARE; not modern warfare, business, or 40K.

And... Not only is the 'Art of War' about Ancient Chinese Warfare exclusively, but since it's a book of strategy, it's also devoid of actual tactics. So... Do we worry about our faction's civilian populations in our games of 40K? Do we have to worry about motivating our troops (beyond randomized leadership tests)? Do we get to outnumber our opponents (beyond having a more efficient list)? Do we have to feed and cloth our armies? Do we have to worry about reprisals and opportunistic attacks from other rivals while we're out campaigning? Do we get to pick our battlefields? No we don't. Not in any meaningful way.

That's why there's very little information in The 'Art of War' that someone playing an abstract game like 40K can actually use. While the relatively few philosophical points that might carry some weight to a 40K player are so obvious as to be worthless to anyone with twenty games under their belt.

So do us all a favor. Read Sun Tsu. Enjoy Sun Tsu. But dammit!... stop quoting him when you talk about 40K. Because to any experienced player, it makes you look like an complete idiot. You're only fooling the newbs.


  1. [Borat] Very nice, I like! [/Borat] I hadn't thought of this book's use in that way before and very much enjoyed your article.

  2. Good article. I 100% agree.

  3. I prefer quoting Baudrillard as a reference in my articles, his work on the myths of the consumer society are highly relevant to applying range-threat paradigms in 40k, don't you think?

  4. This is going to be my default link whenever someone brings up The Art of War. Short and simple article.


    Cache - Whoreti...

  5. I like to apply Mahanian strategy to winning my games. I pay someone to park a car across my opponents driveways, so that they can't go anywhere to play. The best 40K players in Indy? You haven't met them, they have been blockaded for 5 years now.

  6. @CauynDarr ooh then one of us needs to back down. I sent them all welcome packages with hand knit smallpox blankets, and sent my men to latrine a few hundred yards upstream.

  7. ummmmm.......i rather enjoy sun tzus art of war. "some" things can be used in 40k. but ill reduce wyrmy's post to a sentence.

    40k is a miniatures game with dice, art of war, is a book about real war.

  8. Indeed. Any true 40K vet knows that Napoleon's writings are much more applicable to 40K than Sun Tzu.


  9. There are much more relevant books on the philosophy of war. It's just more people will understand how smart you are when you say "Sun Tzu says..." rather than "Clauswitz says...".

  10. You should see the looks I get when I say, "Well Che says", or even better "Uncle Mau tells us..."

  11. I do understand that Sun Tzu is not the best way to go about trying to tell someone tactics of 40K, but this article is just downright wrong. Sun Tzu gave many good lessons in Art of War. Not to mention that there are tons of tactics that Sun Tzu utilized that a lot of 40K players utilize. Applying Art of War to the table top. Yes you can. It might not always work, as there is no way for you to garauntee that cutting off the supply lines by flanking the enemy will actually work, as in 40K, the armies don't get all crazy, and flee when they realize that they have no retreat. Cause a instant victory. But please don't bash the book of a man who has been seen as one of the greatest tacticians of all time because you need an ego boost or whatever.

  12. I think you missed the point of the article. Sandwyrm's not saying that Art of War does not have useful military philosophy. He's saying that anything in Art of War that can be useful to 40K has to be so universal as to be trivial. We're talking about the clichéd quotes that can be applied in hundreds of different ways. It's like saying "One in the hand is worth two in the bush" and interpreting that to mean you should shoot only units in open terrain and not the ones in cover.

  13. I'm not bashing the book. I like it enough that I own a beautiful leather-bound copy of it, which I referenced for this article. It's an enjoyable and thoughtful read when understood in the proper context.

    But I get pissed off when I see people take quotes from the book out of context and try and hang a bit of 40K "wisdom" off of it. Because 99% of the time they're using it's reputation to push pedantic half-baked crap on the rest of us.

    So even thought I could write something thoughtful using an appropriate excerpt from Art Of War, I won't. Because that well has been poisoned. It's no different than when people lift some quote out of context from the Bible and then use it to justify their pet theory on something. I like the Bible, but not the misuse of it.

  14. Sandwyrm, thank you for this. It needed to be said.

  15. "These are not the droids you are looking for."

  16. Personally I prefer the book of five rings by Miyamoto Musashi for all my pedantic misquoting advice.

    In fact I think the best way to use this book, or any book for that matter, is to never read it. Just grab sentences from the middle or the back and then reapply them to what ever argument you are in-lighting the inter-webs on currently. See this way you get the advantage of sounding like a tactical genius with out having to go through all the hard work of reading the books.

    For in this way lies the path of the water scroll and the killing sword. And I didn’t even have get up to find my copy of the five rings, go go gadget Google!

  17. I guess it's been a few months since someone posted a 'Sun Tzu sucks' post so I guess it's due.

    Reading Sun Tzu can improve your game, even if it is philosophizing about stuff you already know.

    But the fact of the matter is time spent actually playing 40k will improve your game far more than reading the Art of War will. So, if you have the choice between reading and rolling dice... roll some damn dice.

  18. This just made my day.

    Makes me want to run off to one of the Borders closing sales and grab a copy of the latest train wreck from Lauren Conrad so that I can start quoting that in reference to 40k constantly.


out dang bot!

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