Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Does 40K Have Too Many Actors?

by SandWyrm

The question sounds strange, sure. But it's a simple one. Does 40K have too many discrete units (actors) to comfortably keep track of over the course of a typical game?

This idea came to me after a discussion I had with Farmpunk, where we both remarked on how much less draining Flames of War is to play than 40K. It's not unusual for me to go home after a hard-fought 40K match and need to veg out for a while. Much like I would after a hard night of computer programming or some other task that requires a high level of concentration.

Yet, the same is not true of Flames, although the number of little army men and tanks involved is about equal. It's not that the rules for Flames are simpler. Both games have a similar level of rules complexity. And anytime you have more than a small number of infantry, Flames will take nearly as long to play as 40K. But Flames organizes it's armies/units differently. Which is where I think the important difference lies in regards to how draining they are on a player.

Let's illustrate this idea by looking at some lists:

SandWyrm's Sanguinary Guard Army (Emo-Wing)

225    Dante

90    Sanguinary Priest w/Jump Pack, Power Weapon
75    Sanguinary Priest w/Jump Pack

250    Sanguinary Guard Squad w/2 x Infernus Pistol, Chapter Banner
220    Sanguinary Guard Squad w/2 x Infernus Pistol
220    Sanguinary Guard Squad w/2 x Infernus Pistol
230    Sanguinary Guard Squad w/2 x Infernus Pistol, Power Fist
230    Sanguinary Guard Squad w/2 x Infernus Pistol, Power Fist
    Fast Attack
140    2 x Land Speeder w/Heavy Flamer, Multi-Melta
140    2 x Land Speeder w/Heavy Flamer, Multi-Melta
180    2 x Land Speeder w/Heavy Bolter, Typhoon Missile Launcher

2000 Points

From an interaction standpoint, this list has 8 actors. Five Sanguinary Guard units, and 3 Speeder units. If I wanted to, I could split Dante and the Sanguinary Priests off from the other units mid-game. Which would make the total number of actors equal to the army's kill points, at 11. In practice though, the priests want to stay with the squads. So the total is really 9.

Nine things to keep track of. Plus however many actors the opposing army has. All moving, shooting, and assaulting each other.

Now let's look at my favorite 2K Imperial Guard list:

180    Company Command Squad w/3 x Melta, Reg. Standard, Astropath, Chimera
70    Primaris Psyker
160    5 Stormtroopers w/2 x Melta, Chimera
160    5 Stormtroopers w/2 x Melta, Chimera
155    Veteran Squad w/3 x Melta, Chimera
155    Veteran Squad w/3 x Melta, Chimera
140    Veteran Squad w/3 x Grenade Launcher, Chimera
115    Veteran Squad w/3 x Flamer, Demolitions
115    Veteran Squad w/3 x Flamer, Demolitions
    Fast Attack
130    Vendetta Gunship
130    Vendetta Gunship
135    Hellhound w/Hull Heavy Flamer, Smoke
    Heavy Support
165    Leman Russ Demolisher w/Hull Heavy Flamer
190    Leman Russ Executioner w/Hull Heavy Flamer

Total: 2000 Points

That's 67 Infantry and 11 tanks/skimmers. Many IG lists boast more tanks than this by using platoons instead of vets.

When deployed on the table, this list has 11-13 actors. Depending on whether the Demo Vets get blocking duty or if they get put inside the Vendettas. But that's not the whole story. If needed, this list can split into 20 separate actors mid-game because of the transports. If I'm fighting say... the Emo-Wing, that's 29 separate actors to keep track of during the game. Twenty nine "things" running around doing stuff. All of which has to be thought about when moving/shooting. How many times have I stared at the table for minutes at a time, working out all the possibilities before I acted? Too many times to count. No wonder I always felt like the Emo-Wing was a more 'fun' list. It wasn't as draining for me to play. :)

Now let's consider my competitive 2000 point Flames of War list:

145    1iC: Panzer IV F2
100    2iC: Panzer IV F1
Combat Platoons
    Panzer Platoon
580    4 Panzer IV F2
    Panzer Platoon
400    4 Panzer IV F1
    Light Panzer Platoon
250    5 Panzer II F
Support Platoons
    Schwere Panzer Platoon
385    Tiger 1E
    Rocket Launcher Platoon
160    4 NW41 Launchers
Total: 2000 Points

Though it has 16 Tanks and 27 infantry (on 7 bases), this list has just 7 actors. The five fighting platoons, plus 2 "Warriors" (the 1iC and 2iC) that can join units at various points during the game. There's also two spotters for the artillery. Though these don't do much more than dig in when the game begins.

Now let's look at an infantry-heavy list that I faced on Saturday:

This list has nearly 380 infantry (on 86 bases), plus 11 tanks. Yet it's still only 8 actors (plus spotters). Those large infantry 'companies' move as one large unit of 32 models. Which isn't that different from an Imperial Guard platoon in 40K.

From what I've read, 6-8 combat/support platoons seems to be the norm for Flames. Since many of the missions require you to put half of your forces in reserve, it helps to be able to put down 3 or 4 units on the table instead of 2. Half of those can normally be placed in ambush. So a large list might take 8 units total in order to be able to ambush with 2 of them when called for.

But... It's difficult in most lists to go over 8 combat/support platoons (10 actors with the command units) without losing effectiveness. I could max out my number of tank platoons, for instance. But since close combat happens one unit at a time, I'd be screwed going MSU against that Soviet list above. I need a large unit or two of tanks to kill infantry in assault. And not taking the expensive tanks with the big guns would hurt me when I have to kill some Tigers or KV's.

So What's Optimal?

Now, obviously different players have different thresholds when it comes to juggling actors in a game. Some are going to like the challenge of having a lot; or see their own high actor-tolerance as an advantage that they can exploit when playing against others. But what's optimal for the majority of players? At what level is the game going to be fun for most vs. draining? And is there a limit to the number of actors that can be usefully included in a 40K army as GW continues to push for larger and larger games?

I think we can see a clue in the preference many non-competitive 40K players have for games at 1500 (or less). They'll say that 1500 is what 40K is 'balanced' for. But they don't mean 'balanced' in the same way that most hard-core competitive players talk about balance. I think what they really mean is that at 1500, they're pushing the right amount of 'stuff' (meaning actors, not models) around the table. They're talking about their ability to comprehend the action, not their ability to win or employ fun tactics.

At 1500, my old IG would be running about 10-15 actors. While most Marine lists would average about 8-12. Notice how most new players tend to go low and have to be taught to take quantity over quality?

And the Flames of War community seems to have settled on 1750 for mid-war and around 1500 for late-war. Given the cost reductions of most units in late-war, that means that the armies are going to be roughly the same size between the time periods. Which for my Germans is about... 7-9 Actors.

Which, oddly enough, is also about the maximum number of recurring characters in an ensemble TV show.  Star Trek was 7. Firefly was 9. Maybe that's the magic range where most folks can keep things straight in their heads?

What might the upper limit be? Chess and checkers have 16 actors per side. Although both games limit what each one can do very rigidly.

So How Can We Reduce The Actor Inflation?

Let's assume that we're GW, and we want to keep selling more models for larger average games. How can we keep from overloading our playerbase with too many actors per game? Consolidate.

Much of this could happen on the army list side of the game. Want to play Imperial Guard? You're going to be buying your men in platoons of 20-50 men plus a Commander and Commissar.
If they have transports, these also act as a platoon. So you have a big blob of guys and a unit of transports. Making it just 2 Actors instead of 6-10 for the FOC slot.

Orks would be bought in Mobs of 30-60 boyz much as you can do now. Trukk Boyz would be 30 infantry models and 3 or so trukks.

Marines, being elite and all, could be bought as separate small squads.  All vehicles would also come in squads/platoons.

Result: Large numbers of Orks/Guard/Nids on the table. Small numbers of Marines on the table. But everyone is pushing around between 7 and 9 'things' on average.



  1. There is a famous psychology article about the number of objects one can hold in working memory. It turns out to be 7 (plus or minus 2). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

    1. Thanks for this link. I knew there had to be some research on this phenomenon, but I didn't know what terms to search for.

  2. I think I got really confused about numbers at the start. After all, aren't Chess games of a smaller number of Actors than 16? Two Castles, two Knights, two Bishops, a Queen, a King, eight Pawns, so 16 pieces, but only 6 Actors. Maybe I am just kerfuzzled.

    1. Chess has only 6 'unit' types, but there are 16 pieces per side at the start of a game. Each of which can move independently (room permitting) of the others. So in gameplay terms they're separate things that need to be kept track of.

      What I'm talking about is 'chunks' or groupings of playing pieces. There may be 50 Guardsmen in that blob over there, with 5 embedded power weapons and a Commissar. But in gameplay terms, it's a single 'actor'. Since all of those models have to move and fight together as one gameplay element. From a comprehension standpoint, grouping up models like this is huge. It reduces confusion because the list of possible interactions that have to be considered is much smaller.

    2. To add to SandWyrm's reply, just like two identical Sanguinary Guard units in his Emo-Wing list are counted as two different Actors, two Knights or Bishops would be different actors because they act independently from each other.

  3. The "7, +||-2" bit is an idea I was exposed to back in college re: interface design.

    It certainly is interesting to consider, in conext, and has me wondering if going above 9 actors (as I recall doing in a recent game) is at fault for forgetting about a reserve unit, or if simply still getting reacquainted with the game (in a new edition, after skipping several) was the cause.

    I think it is worth noting that some army lists make it easier (or harder) to consolidate in this mode, as well as in re: to the MSU strategy that this seems to be an upward limit of (especially in terms of special and heavy weapons). All too many lists are not metricised on "X choices of Y wargear category/list per Z unit size divisor", which I suppose is part of the reason for using MSU anyway.

    Allowing multiple dedicated transport choices per FoC selection is an interesting solution, and certainly does address the odd, FAQ addresses situation where one is, for example, allowed (but only in some cases) to take a larger unit than will fit in its DT. One wonders if this will be more standaradized in later codices as we march towards 6e, or if this an intentional benefit/drawback put in place to "balance" some armies.

    1. I think that the better competitive players learn the knack of 'grouping' their units mentally into a smaller number of 'things' that move around the table. In my 2K IG list, for instance, I usually thought of it as:

      1) Chimeltas moving forward (CCS + Vet Units)
      2) Chimeltas (Stormtroopers) scouting or outflanking
      3) Vets blocking (Demo Vets)
      4) Reserve Plasma Chimera
      5) Long-Range Anti-Tank (Vendettas)
      6) Long-Range Anti-Infantry (Russes)
      7) Short Range Anti-Infantry (Demolisher)

      Which is certainly a skill, and can be 'fun' to learn to master. But the number of players that learn to think this way is always going to be a small subset of the playerbase at large. Which is going to exclude everyone else. Producing an elite within an elite gaming niche.

      40K itself rewards MSU because there's no mechanics in place (as Flames has) for splitting a unit's fire or targeting specific weapon teams in a larger unit. If you play Guard, for instance, you need sacrifice units to throw in front of Terminators to buy you time to shoot. Whereas if you can't hurt a tank in assault in Flames of War, you can still force it to take LD checks by hitting it. When it fails it'll be forced to pull back. Letting you shoot at it on your next turn.

      As for transports, I think that 40K's aversion to properly thought out vehicle units (and the FOC itself) is a relic of it's roots as a small-squad game. GW's simply been lazy in updating their thinking.

    2. The more I read attempts to write tactica for my primary army (Craftworld Eldar), the more I encounter terms like "synergy" (which I really think would be more properly stated as "interdependence"): the internet seems to think that Eldar units need to be grouped with complementary units to have a hope at prevailing.

      I struggle with the notion that being able to grasp/execute the concept of intra-army task forces, and considering each task force an actor, places a player in some sort of an elite. That said, actually maintaining the sort of command discipline to see this kind of strategy through, successfully, might be, e.g. not re-assigning the counter-charge unit from Task Force Alpha to Task Force Bravo if Bravo takes early fire, and instead staying true to plan to really test the efficacy of pairing diverse units as a single task force actor.

  4. This is a preference thing. The games w/ only a handful of units in play bore me, both in spectacle and in what my mind has to keep track of. The same can certainly "drain" others. One man's something something is another man's yadda yadda.

    1. I love the chaos of many pieces flowing around. Trying to order it is a tremendous challenge but I find it's incredibly satisfying.

    2. If 7-9 'actors' is the average tolerance, then my personal preference is probably around 12 or 13. At 9, I keep wanting just a bit more stuff in my Flames army. I thought that a larger game would accommodate that better, but it actually seems to be hard to get much over 11 in Battlefront's army list system.

      However from a game designer's perspective, the question really is: "How much of the general population do we want to appeal to?"

      2-3 actors might nab you 90% of potential players. 7 might get you 50%. While 15+ might limit your appeal to 5% or less of the general population. Which is fine if you're intentionally doing that as a designer. But I'm not sure that GW is.

    3. Maybe being pushed past our capacity to keep everything in mind contributes to the "epic" feel of the game? If the game is harder to play competitively but has a cinematic feel then it might capture casuals in spite of being tough to really master.

  5. I've also heard the rule of 7, to an extent... it's the number of random items the average person can retain in short term memory (which is why phone numbers are kept to 7 digits for general use, for example).

    2k of Nids for me has... let's see... 12 'actors', plus a spore pod and any spawned termagants. Dark Eldar, I'd have to look over a list, but I'm sure it's more. But I've never felt overwhelmed.

    Honestly, I think it has a lot more to do with the way you view the game. You're saying you walk away from a game (keyword) as if you'd just walked away from a day of work. And that doesn't say something? I feel drained after highly competitive tournaments, which is why I shy away from them... it turns my game into something simply less fun.

  6. I agree with Foodie,

    It isn't about how many ideas or actors you can think about in your head that causes brain drain in my opinion. It's about when things happen that you aren't expecting that causes an issue. When a competitive player looses, or the game doesn't go the way they planned then the brain drain happens. If you think you are going to win everygame, then you loose some, the competitive players contemplates how they could have played better, what they could have done differently, where they lost the game, etc. When you win, even if it is close there seems to be another chemical released in the brain that says, "ahh". Which to me isn't draining but relaxing.

    And why not push your brain to think about more......? Wouldn't that make the game more challenging???? If not just play flames I guess....(LOL, J-K)

    1. Having played you many times, I think that stuff not going as expected is *your* biggest stress factor. But I get 'drained' playing 40K whether I win or lose so long as it's a challenging game at all. If it's a cakewalk I can just run everything on autopilot and turn my brain off. Which I hate doing.

      The revelation with Flames has been that I can have a fun, close, tactical game against a good opponent (win or lose) without the mental drain at the end. I get the ahhhhh... without the argh!!!. If that makes sense.

      I think it's an issue of having more actors to play with in 40K, but less tactical depth within those actors. Sort of like how a movie with 20 main characters can't spend as much time exploring each one as a movie with 5-6 main characters can.

      Take assault, for instance. At first, the close combat in Flames seems ridiculously simplified compared to 40K. But once you learn to do it properly you find out that it's actually much more tactically deep than 40K. Because you have to prepare the target beforehand, plan the unit order you'll assault in, move advantageously during it, and be aware of where you'll want to move afterward. You can kill far more models if you know how to move properly. Independent of whatever the dice may be doing. I find that both fascinating and refreshing. Just because you charge in with a unit your opponent can't hurt doesn't mean that you're going to win. So it forces you to think about what you really want to get out of the combat.

    2. No offense, but pretty much EVERYTHING you just described in terms of Flames of War's CC phase being more complicated/better than 40k's applies directly in 40k as well--it just doesn't apply to the armies you play.

      Seriously, aside from "prepare the target beforehand" every single one of those things is dead-on to playing a non-Marine (and a few of them even apply to Marines) army in 40k in terms of Assault. Things are a lot more complicated when you don't have universal Grenades, or when all conceivable benefits aren't self-contained within the unit making the charge.

      Just because most people dumb the Assault phase down to "those Orks charge those Marines" followed by someone sloppily pushing models into other models doesn't mean that's all there actually is to it. It's a huge deal for Daemon or Tyranid armies in particular to plan every conceivable outcome of an Assault in regard to placement, any ICs involved, avoiding Cover on the charge if possible, potentially Consolidating into Cover if possible, all the while taking into account your (likely static and uninvolved) Fateweaver or Synapse bubbles during both the charge and a potential consolidate. Most of that (short of the bubbles) applies to Orks just as well, though Orks tend to have some leeway in the form of sheer number of bodies.

      And then you've got the new Necrons, where planning and executing Assaults starts to function on an absurd model-by-model strategic basis in dramatically important ways should any Mindshackle Scarabs be involved. I've spent far too much time thinking about optimal positioning and movement formations in regard to those damned Mindshackles.

  7. I would put the problem down in the main part from Warhammer in general coming from a RPG point of view while (I have never played FoR but i imagine) FoR comes from a wargaming approach.

    Warhammer approaches thing from a individual person so as the size of the game increases it becomes harder to concentrate as there are loads of 'actors' on the board. Other systems use units so there isn't such of a problem.

    However what Warhammer does give you is the chance of david vs goliath moments but the payoff is difficulty comes in having too many 'actors' on the board.

    1. Let's consider Infantry for a second. In Flames, my North African Germans can take a Schützen platoon. Which is a command base, 4-6 Rifle/MG bases, and options for adding an anti-tank rifle team and up to 2 man-packed anti-tank guns.

      So that's about 10 bases. With 2 heavy weapons and a specialized short range anti-tank gun. Each base is 5 men instead of one, but it sounds pretty much like an Imperial Guard squad with 2 heavy weapons and a melta gun.
      Those Russians I faced? 32+ bases. Which sounds like a Guard blob or a mob of Orks.

      So when you put scale aside, it really does become a matter of groupings. Let's look at what my old Guard list would look like if it was Flames-i-fied:

      Imperial Guard Mech Infantry List

      1iC: Company Command Squad w/Chimera, Melta upgrade, Astropath upgrade
      2iC: Primaris Psyker

      Combat Platoons:
      Armored Fist Platoon
      3 Armored Fist Sections (3 Squads + 3 Squadroned Chimeras)

      Combat Engineer Platoon (Melta Bombs)
      2 Sections

      Support Platoons
      -Naval Ground Support Platoon-
      2 Vendetta Gunships

      -Light Armor Platoon-
      1 Hellhound

      -Heavy Armor Platoon-
      2 Leman Russ Battle Tanks (Demolisher, Executioner)

      -Stormtrooper Scout Platoon-
      2 Stormtrooper Sections (2 Squads + 2 Chimeras)

      Same amount of stuff, but it's in 8 groupings (actors) instead of running around individually. Given vehicle squadron rules that don't suck, it would be quite playable.

    2. I think you might be on to something there. The foundations of Warhammer (including 40K in spite of the divergence occurring in the late '90s) are essentially model-as-actor in nature. WFB has a chronic dissonance of scale at its very heart (units move like much bigger formations but fight like they are the size they are) and I think that lends a certain amount of mechanical strain. When people talk about the 'dumbing down' of 40K I invariably paste in 'scaling up', because it amounts to the same thing. Many of the 'dumbing down' policies have been efforts to remove egregious model-as-actor mechanics, like the streamlining of close combat and the removal of personal characteristics across both systems.

  8. Something you might be interested in checking out is Tactical Assault's Combat Cards. Basically the notion is that you have a deck of cards defining when your units can act and resolve situations. The neat thing is that each player gets six cards in their hand, and the ability to apply them to larger forces depends on the number of HQ units you take. It really flattens out the number of things that a player has to do. Very usable game system. Incidentally, you might want to look up usability...

  9. I somewhat agree with what you are saying. I do agree that there is a complexity issue with games that can be draining, but I don't think it has as much to do with how many distinct actors are on the table top at one time. It more likely has to do with the number of actors times the number of rules that can effect them.

    FoW has some complex rules, but the units in the game are fairly homogeneous. A rifle team is a rifle team is a rifle team. The armies have special rules, but they tend to be maybe a dozen for all of a nation's briefings.

    Contrast that with 40K where there are almost no similarities between codexes. Each codex may have dozens of special rules. And when you play a game against an army, you have to keep track of all these things. Add to that, that the interactions can be fairly fuzzy, and you have a very complex set of variables to track in a game of 40K.

    If you want to talk about mentally draining games, you should mention Warmachine. That has a low amount of units in play at a single time, but that's out of a possible set of hundreds of units each with around an average of 6 unique special rules each.

    I think it's about how complex each actor can be, not the number of actors that is the problem.

    I would also say that you probably haven't played games against a large range of possible FoW lists yet. There could be a lot of complex interactions in FoW you don't consider because you don't know they exist yet.

  10. "I think what they really mean is that at 1500, they're pushing the right amount of 'stuff' (meaning actors, not models) around the table. They're talking about their ability to comprehend the action, not their ability to win or employ fun tactics.

    At 1500, my old IG would be running about 10-15 actors. While most Marine lists would average about 8-12. Notice how most new players tend to go low and have to be taught to take quantity over quality?"

    This sounds like a compelling argument to me, although I think level of detail in the actors counts for a lot as well (CaulynDarr is on the money about Warmachine, which is more of a brain drain than anything not produced by Fantasy Flight, and which I find intolerably straining at anything above about 35 points).

    If that makes me cognitively inferior (or just a lazy bloke who plays games as time off from hardcore thinking about abstract, intangible, deeply subjective theoretical nonsense) I suppose I'll have to live with that.

    1. I've not played War Machine beyond a quick demo game of Hordes at Adepticon that didn't endear me to the system. I think it was the filling in of the little circles (for wounds) on the reference card. Which gave me nasty (Classic) Battletech flashbacks. THERE was a game that was hell to play at any sort of scale. Just having 12 Mechs per side would take all night (and morning) to play. The system just didn't scale up well at all.

      When a friend came home with the Adeptus Titanicus box set, it was a revelation. We never played Battletech again. The simplicity of GW's giant robot system was a breath of fresh air. It was a hell of a lot more fun too. While being no more expensive than BT was.

      I was 17 back then. I think that only the older players like me (who are pushing 40 now) can remember that GW used to have the best designed games in the business. Back when the only other competition was Battletech, Role Playing Games, and flavorless ultra-complicated historical wargames. Having only one die per model in the interaction was mind-blowing at the time. There also wasn't any sticker shock in moving from BT to AT. It just wasn't a factor at all.

      I think it's easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that we're uber-mench for being able to handle an over-complicated game. But then you play something that's better designed and you realize that you were working the game more than playing it. If that over-complicated game is a GW product, then you start to wonder why you're paying twice as much for such rubbish rules.

  11. Fascinating article fella. I think you've really hit the nail on the head here. Sometimes having more units IS an advantage, if you can handle it and your opponent can't (ie: who forgets units, firing, saving throws, reserves etc) ... this can frequently be seen in APOC games (where funnily enough turn sequence doesn't stringently apply, well locally we roll like that)...

    But that doesn't make you a great tactician, just a great juggling multitasker.

    Adding insult to injury is the plethora of 'unique' rules. Flames tend to class rules (such as 'stormtrooper' or 'volley fire') onto whole classes and types of vehicles/infantry units. They are unique rules, but are applied in a more 'universal rule' approach.

    My, but GW love their 'unique' rules. So not only are you juggling 9+ units, but you're also having to remember 10+ unique unit rules that need 'exploiting' at different moments in the turn sequence...

    Why do you think I've shelved my beautiful Tyranid army after a handfull of games. I do wargaming as a relaxing hobby, not a mindfuck. I got a job for that (and it pays me for the pleasure!).

    1. I think the biggest difference for me is in the off-table game. I used to spend DAYS endlessly tweaking my Guard army lists for every small advantage I could find. It was making me crazy.

      Now? I play my Sang Guard, who's list hasn't changed at all in 11 months, yet they still win most of their games just fine (even against the new Necrons). Why? Because I can't tweak them. The options for the army are VERY limited. There's not much to obsess over.

      As for my Germans in Flames, I don't think that I've spent more than 15 minutes on a list yet. Because beyond a couple of considerations (having arty to pin with, having 6 or 8 units for optimal reserves), most of the difference in play happens on the field. I haven't had a game yet where I couldn't spot a *tactical* reason that I or my opponent lost.

  12. You forgot to account for multiple mission types to further the amount of crazyness going into moving all those actors.


out dang bot!

Recent Favorites

All-Time Favorites