Out of all the miniature wargames that I enjoy playing- Warhammer 40K, Battletech, X-Wing Miniatures, Ancients, and Judge Dredd Miniatures my most “successful” army is my Warhammer 40,000 Saim-Hann Eldar Army. I have played this army essentially unchanged since 2007 through numerous army list updates and edition of the Warhammer 40,000 game- 4th Edition, 5th, 6th, and now 9th.
While it does have some powerful units in the list, it by far isn’t a “powergamer” army, so what is the KEY to its success? Familiarity. It goes back to being an active vs. passive player and the ability to free your mind in a competitive game from the mechanical thinking of rules, and how things work, so you can take advantage of tactical openings as they happen.
Truly in competitive play the winner is often the person who makes the least amount of mistakes. We want to do our best to limit our mistakes on the tabletop while encouraging our opponent to make the most mistakes- and when they do, we need to be in a place that we can punish them for that. This begins with the list- the models, and units you are bringing to the game be they infantry, battle-robots, or spacecraft. Y
ou first competitive gaming task is going to be familiarizing yourself with your gaming list so it becomes beyond second nature. What this means in getting in enough effective (more on this in a moment) practice games so you know how the army works and plays on the tabletop without you having to check rules or ask yourself what to do next. You need to be so familiar with it that nothing your opponent will bring against it will take you off guard. By being free of the mundane bookkeeping aspects of your army you can focus on tactics and taking advantage of the openings your opponent give you.
As an example with my Saim-Hann Eldar I have a number of jetbike models- think of a futuristic flying motorcycle. As I play them each turn if I have to keep looking up how far they can move on the table, what is the range of their guns and how they work, and what their armor save is, or other special rules like jink, then this is where my mind is going to be every turn- rules details over being able to see how the jetbikes flow on the table since I can see how and where they can move.
How you get to this point is NOT by memorizing rules, but rather playing practice games over and over, and using that time to naturally look up the rules as needed. Gradually your flow will get better, they key here is to find the list you like and stick with it- learn it, become proficient in it. Which leads us to the next part- an all takers list vs. a specialized list. One of the great things about miniature wargaming is all the variation in units and models you can have on the table, pulling from not only various army factions depending on your system, but also the variations in that army itself.
We can both play Battletech and in your list you bring all mechs, while in mind I bring a combination of mechs, tanks, and infantry- both are correct and “legal” to use, yet present different tactical options.
That said, in many competitive gaming lists there tends to be one of two builds- all takers list vs. a specialized list. An all takers list has a little bit of everything to handle any situation that might arise on the tabletop. You have something to deal with infantry, tanks, and air support. You have a good mix of shooting and close combat- speed and durability. Your army isn’t the BEST in any one area of the game, but it at least can put up a fight against all phases of the game. The idea here with this kind of list is that at the start of the game, when you are spending a few moments looking at your opponent’s army/list and asking the question of just what they are planning to do with their army and you take note of any weakness in that list you are now ready to exploit those weaknesses when they appear on the table.
As an example, let’s say your opponent has a weakness of anti-air option in their army, well in that case your air support units are going to be an important focus in the game since they will be difficult and require more dice layers (from before) for your opponent to effectively stop.
You are going to use your flyers/air support to really aggressively act against your opponent and push that to them in the game- and while they are buys dealing with it, that will allow the other aspects of your army to pull ahead. With an all takers list you look at all the phases of the game and have units that can do something in those phases.
The second list is the specialized list which is hyper focused. With a specialized list you dedicate all of your points, credits, or whatever you use to buy units in the game towards one action in the game. As an example let’s say our wargame has a movement phase where we move stuff, a shooting phase where we shoot guns, and an assault phase where we charge into close combat and settle things face-to-face. An all takers list would have a few units that can move really fast/well, a few that shoot powerfully, and a few that can sweep in the assault. A specialized list puts it all into one- all the units can move fast primarily, with shooting and assault ability secondary.
Or shooting is first. Or assault is first. By building a list to hyper-focus on one game phase you are looking to overwhelm your opponent in that phase so they can’t react to it. My units are so fast on the table, that I can just avoid you big guns. Here is an example of a hyper-focused list.
In Battletech I often build my lace (group of mech-robots) from mechs that have heavy auto cannons and PPC based weapons. In game terms a “hit” from one of these weapons causes 10-20 points of damage- a very powerful amount of damage when compared to other mechs that have weapons that deal 5-8 points. I’m looking to hyper overload my opponent in the shooting phase of the game- meaning while I don’t have as many weapons on each mech, the ones I do have if they hit will cause tremendous damage- damaging heavy mechs and destroying or crippling lighter mechs. Since I need each shot to hit, to push through the layers of dice I move as fast and close as possible to my opponent and then stand sill blasting away to cut down on the dice modifiers in the game which make it harder to hit when moving.
Although by then standing still I make my mechs easier to hit, with the focused shooting of my 10-20 point damage weapons- at least one on each mech, the fight is over pretty quickly before my opponent can strip away my armor. The power in this lance (list) is that once I close and start stripping off armor with my weapons it is very quick acting- often taking players by surprise and in that surprise they make mistakes.
Or worse they are not even ready for what my list is bringing in the first place. The challenge with such a list is if by chance your opponent has a way to counter the one area you are hyper focusing in then you are in trouble, because unlike an all takers list there is no second option. If my heavy shooting lance comes up against a mass infantry list, then it is easy to swarm my mechs, and often there just isn’t enough game turns for me to effectively kill everything I need to win the mission.
So which list is better? Neither, they just reflect different playstyles and you should pick the list playstyle that naturally fits your gaming personality which means it will be easier to learn and play for you- becoming a natural extension of your mind on the table, an avatar of sorts, as quickly as possible.
With an all takers list you patiently wait for your opponent to make a mistake with their units and then you counter on that weakness, while a specialist list looks to overwhelm the opponent so quickly and fast in one aspect of the game that they are unable to counter it effectively.