Game Theory: Stealing the initiative

Those of you who came over from Warhammer 40.000 will be familiar with the term “stealing the initiative“… but this article  has very little to do with that sad excuse for a rule, because in this game your ability to build and run a list decides the outcome.

Introduction

I’ve stolen some images from IRONDOG Studios and his amazing comic battle reports, which I hope he won’t mind even though I haven’t been on Warseer since I found Warmachine (sorry mate, I found a better game). This article is about “not letting your opponent dictate the game” and avoiding the situation like the one depicted below.

Borrowed from Irondog studios!

This article was inspired by three recent games, in which my opponents threw their games away on the very first turn, so I’ll try to explain exactly how they lost the initiative. As always some of the concepts might be hard to explain in writing so feel free to comment or ask, but before we move on I should define “the initiative”.

What is The Initiative?

If you have “The Initiative” you’re in control of the game. This doesn’t mean that your models aren’t dropping left and right, but they’re doing it on your terms and according to your plan.

If this is done perfectly it leads to a “perfect game” where nothing happens unless you will it so. I’ve had two perfect games in my life, and in both of them my only casualty was a single Warwitch Siren. This is how important “the initiative” is and taking, keeping, or stealing it will turn an unwinnable game around.

How do you Take the Initiative?

Before the game begins we roll some dice and one player is allowed to decide who goes first. If you have two good players and both of them understand the lists they’re up against this roll is hugely im-por-tant and dictates how the game will play out.

In this scenario (Outflank, Outfight, Outlast) the zones are both exactly in the middle and it’s the perfect example to use. The zones are 12″ in diameter which means that there’s 11 inches from the first players deployment to the edge of the zone.

The second player has just eight inches from his deployment to the zone so it’s easy for him to get all but the slowest of models into the zone on his first turn. Now I tried to cook up some simplified examples but simple examples failed to capture the essence of the issue so we’ll try complicated instead (oh, and I don’t claim that any of the lists I’ll use are in any way realistic).

Combined arms Cygnar Vs. Melee Khador

I’m the Cygnar player and I’m in a pickle here because I’m facing Iron Fang Pikemen which means that if Khador has the first turn he will have his feet an inch within the zone and the speed to charge across it, so I need the first turn in order to take the initiative. I brought my own melee troops with Reach (Stormguard) so I can put my own foot in the zone and he’ll be up the creek instead. I win the first turn and choose to run up the melee troops and line up my guns behind them like this.

The blue dots are my melee troops, the purple dots are ranged models, and the green is my caster (in case that matters later). The Khador player has a problem now because he’s faced with the following options:

  • Run a couple of models into the zone (will fail since my ranged firepower will simply remove them while my melee troops stay put or shuffle an inch or two forward).
  • Run in a lot of models (Will fail since my ranged models will thin the herd and my melee models will charge and annihilate whatever is left standing, leaving him with bubkes to mount a counter attack).
  • Put nothing in the zone and find some way to circumvent the issue next round.

In this example I assume I’m up against someone who realizes that giving me the game by moving into the zone is a bad idea (and if not I’ve just had a nice 10 minute game and won it), so he shuffles around and I’ve Taken The Initiative because I control the zones, and if I can Keep The Initiative another round I’ll be positioned to win by scenario.

In our example Khador lines up like this. The following turn there’s not a lot I can do with my melee troops as they have exactly the same threat range as his IFP, so the player who moves up first gets the pointy end of the stick, but since I’m holding the initiative I don’t have to do anything as he can’t avoid coming to me when his turn comes around. I have long range firepower so I can shuffle my melee troops and thin his ranks a bit (Gun Mages and casters with access to Snipe excel at this).

Since he picked option three and shuffled around outside my charge range I will need to move something solid into the zones to avoid his ranged presence clearing me out so he can score (since he was the second player), and in this case I have two jacks available which is something not many factions can shoot to death in a single round. Now I have the zones camped and there’s very little he can do about it. When you look at the setup above the armies seem very evenly matched, and Khador might even seem to dominate with three heavies, but positioning is everything in this game.

This is how the setup looks in a real game. My Terminus list usually loses the initiative and has to steal it back (because it’s mainly SPD 5 so I can’t make it into the zone). I’ve constructed the list to work around the problem but in this particular instance my opponent had a meltdown and allowed me another turn to move up and completely dominate the table. This usually doesn’t happen but I don’t have any pictures of this exact scenario with any other army so it will have to do.

If you look at the setup you can see several things that tell you I have the initiative (more on that in a minute), but the most important thing is the Blackbane’s Ghost Raiders camped on his flank. These guys present him with a serious problem because:

  • If he decides to ignore the Ghost Raiders they will spawn a ghost army and he will lose.
  • If he decides to take them out he will need to use A&H + Nyss Hunters and make it impossible to impact my lines at all.

I can put him in that impossible situation because I hold the initiative, and unless he manages to steal it the following round he’s doomed. This is of course a great situation for me so what kind of tools do I need to take the initiative: well it depends completely on the scenario and the list I’m up against. If we take the Cygnar/Khador example above I just need:

  • Something with equal or greater charge threat than him.
  • Two things that will survive a round of his shooting.
  • Something that will make it into the zone on the first turn.

If the scenario was more complicated the tools I would need would be more complicated, and it’s rare that you have a situation where the answer is as obvious as in the Cygnar/Khador example. If the lists were more complex the answer would be the same so let’s analyze the example from the Cryx Vs. Khador game instead: why do I have the initiative?

  • I have Stealth and Submerge so he can’t really hurt me with his shooting.
  • I have Bane Thralls and Machine Wraiths so he can’t move up the Spriggan to counter my Stealth.
  • I have 12″ threat on Snapjaw and Terminus and 11.5″ on Bane Thralls with Tartarus and Darragh Wrathe.
  • I have an Incorporeal horde parked on his flank.

His Nyss Hunters can’t target my Bane Thralls due to Stealth. They can’t target WE&SJ due to submerge. They could shoot Erebus if they really wanted but big deal. They can’t shoot my Bile Thralls because even with Zephyr they’d be Bane Thrall food afterward so the only viable target he has is Blackbane’s Ghost Raiders.

The game is not won at this point but I’m in firm control. I know he has to take the Ghost Raiders with his Nyss Hunters and I know he’ll lose if he does. My opponent also knows he’ll lose if he takes that course of action so instead he tries to… Dun Dun Duuun!

Steal(ing) the initiative!

It so happens that pIrusk has one of the most obvious tools we can use to steal the initiative: the ability to survive an impact. If a list has the ability to walk into an opponents kill zone and shrug it off then that opponent effectively loses the initiative. This is what my Terminus list does and it works, but it’s not subtle and it doesn’t work unless you build a list specifically with that strategy in mind.

Duck & Cover (Taking the hit)

pIrusk uses his feat and rushes the zone with what he hopes is just enough to stop me while keeping enough back to wipe me when I come for him. He knows I have to come for him and if his plan works he will have stolen the initiative.

  • Left flank is Kayazy Assassins with Tough and defense 16 against melee.
  • Center is Nyss Hunters with 4+ Tough, KD immunity, and Iron Flesh (Defense 18).
  • Right flank is 4+ Tough, Shield Wall, and KD immune IFP.

It’s a good plan actually and it would have worked perfectly except for two things: Admonia & Valachev. Admonia removes Iron Flesh from the Nyss after being moved within range by Madelyn, and Terminus charges in and kills Valachev, turning the demi-god Nyss Hunters into non-faction models and winning me the game when their souls suddenly become available.

The rest of the game was a bust for Khador but the basic idea was fine and it would have worked if Valachev had been 12.5″ away instead of 12″. I would have impacted his lines and killed nowhere near the number of models I needed in order to keep myself safe from Battle Lusted Great Bears with A&H to back them up, which means I couldn’t have engaged in force and he would have stolen the initiative.

My Terminus list does the same thing. I advance and take insignificant damage due to Stealth, Submerge, Tough, Beyond Death, and distractions until I reach a point where my opponent has to come for me. Then he takes down what would be a significant part of any other list, but my list ignores it and hit’s back like a ten ton frozen turkey dropped from outer space.

Counters: Duck & Cover fails against lists that can impact more than once. These are casters like eKaya with her teleporting battlegroup, eDeneghra with her lock down feat, and several other lists and feats in the game. It also fails against a well played wave attack but these are very rare.

Fire at will! (Shooting)

Having superior fire power makes it a lot easier to steal the initiative. It’s a simple fact that if you have more guns than he does he will have to advance or face annihilation. When he advances he also faces annihilation because he has to advance into your melee kill zone. The key to this is of course to balance shooting and melee because you need to field enough melee to make your kill zone effective while fielding enough guns to force him forward.

Boom motherf#¤%&r

 

If you’re up against someone with less fire power than the initiative is yours by default. He will have to come to you or you’ll destroy him at range. If you’ve lost the initiative and need to steal it back then shooting has the very distinct advantage of force application.

If you have multiple melee models you often can’t get them all in against one small based target, but ranged models circumvent a huge number of the problems involved with force application. Ranged models can also kill models without getting in the way of their melee friends, which allows you to dedicate a greater part of your offense to a point on the table.

This means you can focus fire a limited amount of models to allow your melee troops a foot in the zone, thus stealing the initiative, where melee models would have had to sacrifice their lives to accomplish the same thing.

Counters: All kinds of things can go wrong with this one. You may come up against an opponent you cannot actually shoot at due to stealth, incorporeal, submerge, or the many other counters to shooting. You may also come up against armies that ignore half your shooting (POW 10-11 shots against an all beast list) or armies that are allowed to engage you when you shoot at them and miss.

Abuse your speed advantage (Threat Range)

Another way of stealing the initiative is to make sure you get the full benefit of being faster than your opponent. This obviously requires you to actually be faster than your opponent, but assuming you are you can run away! (Not what you were expecting now was it!)

FLEEE!

 

Running like a pansy bitch is sometimes worthwhile. It’s easy enough to take the initiative when you’re faster but this example assumes you’ve gone and lost it like the wee git you are. Running away solves all kinds of problems but you have to run with a purpose because games are only 2-5 rounds long and spending one of them running away is a huge waste of resources unless you somehow gain something by doing it.

In many scenarios there are flags to threaten, support models to threaten, or simply some terrain to abuse, and quite often having a unit in cover means more than killing one or two enemy models and having your army butchered.

Counters: This obviously fails if your opponent is faster than you. This also fails if you opponent can keep pushing you away from the objectives or zones, as running away more than once is an almost insurmountable loss of resources in most cases. Finally this often fails because you can’t run away without losing on scenario.

Call for heroic volunteers! (Screens)

If you can’t take the hit, can’t run away and engage elsewhere, and you have to come to him then call for heroic volunteers to go take the worst of it. These guys will have to be very hard to shift by shooting, preferably with Reach, and be able to park themselves where they can cause a lot of headaches before valiantly sacrificing their lives.

Volunteers for the front!

 

In Cryx the perfect unit would be the Satyxis Raiders but most factions have something that can get the job done. Their job is simply to run in and make sure his dangerous models are either negated or forced to fire upon our heroes instead of the main army. These heroic individuals are known as screens and knowing what units in your faction can screen is a very good idea. The purpose of sweepers is to counter screens so make sure you’ve somehow taken his sweepers into consideration (or out of the game if possible) before you decide on using a screen to steal the initiative.

Counters: A list with enough sweepers will thank you for all the free kills. A list with a screen of their own can prove very problematic as they mostly cancel each other out. A list which gains from your deaths (Cull Soul, Corpse Tokens, etc.) can kill your screen and benefit.

Covering fire (Buffers)

Using Buffers is great way of stealing the initiative if you have them. It works exactly like Heroic Volunteers except you don’t actually have to lose any of own models doing it.  Covering fire is by far the most effective way of stealing the initiative if you have the right tools for the job.

 

Counters: A lot of things ignore the different kind of buffers. If your opponents models mostly ignore, circumvent, or remove your buffers you should do something else. It’s awesome when it works but relying on them is a mistake unless you’re extremely certain of your opponents abilities.

Come at me bro! (Deterrents)

Deterrents are my favorite way of stealing the initiative. If attacking you means he’ll be wiped it’s damn hard to keep you from stealing the initiative, and deterrents work against almost everyone (very few models are immune to a good old fashioned beating). Deterrents are also exceptional when it comes to taking the initiative in the first place.

Counters: Anything that can remove your deterrent. There’s no way to list every possible counter to every possible deterrent but in the case of my own favorite deterrent (Bile Thralls) the counter is really long ranged shooting.

Putting it all together

This got a little out of hand and now we get to the hard part and sadly this isn’t something you can learn from reading: when to use a specific strategy.

When you’re at the table you will have to figure out if you’re faster than he is, and there’s more to it than comparing movement speeds. You’ll have to look at the terrain, the amount of Pathfinder, movement related spells, SPD debuffs etc. etc. etc.

You’ll have to determine the odds of surviving an impact with enough left for a real counter punch. You’ll have to determine if his sweepers can clean out your screen. You’ll have to determine which of your armies is most likely to win a shooting match and the list goes on and on.

In order to use any of these strategies you’ll have to figure out which one is best given the scenario and lists involved, and it won’t always be obvious (very rarely actually), and rarely will one of them be enough.

Terminus

If we take a little walk through the different strategies and compare them to my Terminus list I think you’ll see how much thought has gone into it. This doesn’t mean you normally have to do it but my list is primarily designed to work by Taking the hit and Deterrents.

Lich Lord Terminus
– Erebus
Bane Thralls (Leader and 9 Grunts)
– Bane Thrall Officer & Standard
Bile Thralls (Leader and 5 Grunts)
The Withershadow Combine
Bane Lord Tartarus
Darragh Wrathe
Machine Wraith
Machine Wraith
Madelyn Corbeau
Saxon Orrik
Wrong Eye
– Snapjaw
Skarlock Thrall

The first thing you’ll notice is the high percentage of models that are resistant to shooting. I have Stealth, Submerge, or Incorporeal on a great deal of my models and it makes it hard to steal my initiative with shooting.

I also have tough on just about everything in the army due to Terminus and his interaction with undead models, so Taking the hit is easy. I have Bile Thralls and WSC as deterrents against infantry and Warjacks, making it very dangerous to send either of them, and the Machine Wraiths work as a forward deterrent against Jacks that I can more easily risk.

I have no shooting, I have no screen, I have very few sweepers though the Bile Thralls occasionally manage to do it, but the list still goes around twenty games for every game it loses because it has two ways of stealing the initiative.

All done

I hope it made sense to you even though it’s a mile long, but in case you have questions feel free to ask them. Stealing the initiative is a seriously complicated thing to describe but once you understand the simple mechanics behind it you’ll find you own ways in your own faction.

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7 Responses »

  1. Very good! Worth the wait, I’d say ;)

  2. Great piece, and couldn’t have come at a better time. I got absolutely smashed last night (pSkarre infantry horde got taken off by beast-heavy Saeryn). I was feeling pretty despondent as I couldn’t even work out what to learn from it (he tabled me, I killed a shredder and three Nyss). However, this article has made me realise exactly what I did wrong – cede the initiative. I knew it would be a hard game so I hung back waiting for him to hit me and feat, in the hope that a plan would then come to me! What I should have done, I think, was be much more aggressive and force him to feat defensively round two, giving me the space to back off without losing on scenario. I had Radiers who could have run up to be sacrificial screens, Blood Witches who could have sat behind as a second wave, with McThralls and Banes as the hard hitters. Still was always going to be a tough game but at least it would have been a game rather than a rout! :D

    • I might have switched your units around (very much depending on the Saeryn list). Most Legion lists have trouble with Incorporeal so you could have run up the Blood Witches and popped their mini feat (making sure to limit their casualties as much as possible with cover and spreading out), Raiders behind them at extreme range, and depending on scenario he would have to feat defensively.

      If he doesn’t the Witches/Raiders on feat round will demolish a significant part of his list (and the Raiders will force him to stall his advance), and if he does you backpedal a bit with the Raiders and sacrifice the Witches.

      This all depends on him not being able to handle Incorporeal models of course, but it sounds like you’ve gotten to the core of the issue so working out the kinks is just a matter of time :)

      • And no matter what Saeryn is a tough cookie for melee Cryx :D

      • Swapping around the Satyxis units hadn’t even occurred to me. I’ve only been playing pSkarre (semi)competitively for about two months, so my experience has been – ‘AD Raiders, run like maniacs and charge something’, or ‘AD Raiders, wait for opponent to come forward, charge something’, immediately followed by ‘die like flies’ :D

        He did have limited anti-Incorporeal, though I should point out that Blight Bringer annihilated me. I guess if the BWs had run forward they would have had room to spread out more though. Raiders going behind … Hmmm. Thinks.

        Thanks for the thoughts, that’s definitely something to try out!

  3. I read lamorons article about which casters should be paired to what casters to cover each others bad matchups. Haveing one mellee list and one ranged/caster list. And ive been following lamorons post ever since i started playing warmachine, and ive also fallen in love with terminus and my list is pretty much a mirror image of his cause it works just like its supposed to. And for the longest time i had the hardest time winning against my friends beast heavy legion, and i just couldnt figure out why. Then it hit me im always trying to figure out a way to deal with his feat instead of making him have to deal with mine. Which is why i have a small difference in opinion with lamoron on which caster should get paired with terminus, but when i stopped reacting to my opponent and started making them react to me, or even just the threat of me and what i can do my wins started turning around.

    I cant even remember how many games i lost to saeryn before i said wait a minute, all he does is have me go first so i run up, then he runs in and engages me and pops feat so i either stay there like an idiot and get smashed the next turn or move away and take free strikes. Which thens leads to him collecting scenario points. So now depending on who gets the first turn i threaten him with Edennys feat and turn the tables on him. And i have to say with all do respect to lamoron i prefer Edenny as a second caster to terminus than pdenny. But i think that is more personal preferance and play style than which one is better.

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