40k 8th Edition Isn’t Any Less Messy, But Could Be At Least As Great

There’s rightfully a lot of buzz around 40k’s 8th edition even among people not currently engaged with the game, e.g., among the X-Wing crowd here, and I’m hoping we can recruit fresh new players into our local community. So this morning I sat down with the leaked rules to be prepared to run demo games at a release party tomorrow.

Literally almost instantly one of my biggest fears about this edition seemed confirmed: The rules are at times sloppy and inadequately specified, a casualty of mistaking shorter text for streamlined gameplay.

By absolutely no means is that to say they’re unplayable, broken, or won’t be fun. I’m looking forward to the edition and think it could be great. But we shouldn’t go into this new era of Warhammer 40,000 with unrealistic expectations that the game is suddenly free from significant open rules questions, let alone balance issues.

Coherency

The example that leapt out at me immediately is unit coherency, one of the core concepts in 40k and one distinguishing it from many other types of miniatures games wherein models act individually or in strict formations.

7th Edition

Here’s how 7th edition defines coherency:

… once a unit has finished moving, the models in it must form an imaginary chain where the distance between one model and the next is no more than 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically. We call this ‘unit coherency’.

Main rules on coherency for 7th edition.

This is a fundamental mechanic of the game that’s simple in essence but surprisingly somewhat tricky to capture fully. As such its main rule gets an entire page in the 7th edition rulebook (pg 19). In addition, there is an earlier note explaining the intent that “Units fight in loose groups with gaps between each model…” (pg 9), and special provisions for vehicle squadrons (pg 79) and independent characters (pg 166).

This 7th edition definition is already not ideal. What is an “imaginary chain”? That’s not a formal game term with any precise meaning. The rule relies on the reader’s understanding of an intuitive concept. That’s problematic on its own, but then the two “X” formations given as permitted formations exacerbate it by not actually fitting a typical natural idea of a chain as a single linear sequence of links, e.g., a necklace or lock. The definition relies on an intuitive understanding that isn’t applied in a totally clear and straightforward fashion.

In contrast, you could define coherency simply and unambiguously with plain text like:

A unit is in coherency if for every pair of models in the unit a sequence can be listed from one to the other of models in the unit each within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of its predecessor.

Or, spelling out some of the implications just a bit more:

A unit is in coherency if for every pair of models in the unit they are either within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of each other or a sequence can be listed from one to the other of other models in the unit each within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of its predecessor.

Both of these definitions are intuitive, unambiguous translations from formal graph theoretic terminology, in which you would concisely define coherency via:

The graph over models in the unit with an edge between every pair of models within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of each other must be connected.

Regardless of these more clear specifications, the text and figures in the 7th edition rules get the concept across solidly and concisely: Models in a unit are supposed to move and fight in close proximity. If you came to the game knowing nothing about it, you would quickly understand that models in a unit cannot be spread all over the place.

8th Edition

Here’s how 8th edition defines unit coherency:

A unit must be set up and finish any sort of move as a group with every model within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of at least one other model from their unit: this is called unit coherency.

Coherency rules in 8th edition.

This is a short, concise rule. But consider this unit of four brave 2nd edition warriors divided into spread apart pairs with the paired models each 2″ apart:

A unit of 4 models in coherency under 8th edition rules.

Assume they deployed that way or properly moved “as a group,” all at one time rather than switching between units. The pictured unit is then inarguably in coherency under 8th edition rules. To quote: “Every model [is] within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of at least one other model from their unit.” All of the models meet all of the given criteria. Yet there’s that 12″ gap in the unit completely against all previous concepts and rules of unit coherency.

That gap could be arbitrarily wide, and there are a lot of reasons you might want some configuration like this. Just off the cuff: You could take a unit of heavy weapons, divide them up into pairs, and spread them all across your deployment zone so that you have a mini-fireteam positioned on each shooting lane. This generally would not have been a particularly helpful before, but in 8th edition all the models can target different enemies so it could definitely be useful. More problematic, you could take a portion of a unit and put it in an essentially unreachable location so that it effectively can’t take wounds. Such near invulnerability could be very powerful if a model or models are providing an ability, stat, buff, or acting as some kind of battery for the unit.

Personally I don’t think this is the designers’ intent, it’s just too big a change to the feel of the game and too awkward. Granted there have been substantial changes made in this edition, but none of the official previews have flagged this as one of them. Regardless, absent official FAQ or errata, intent doesn’t matter, because you could argue it either way. Consider interacting with a newcomer to the game:

  • They set up a bunch of Devastators spread across their deployment zone.
  • You say they can’t do that.
  • They ask you to show them the rule saying they can’t.
  • You claim the designers intended for units to fight close together.
  • They ask you to prove it.
  • You say it’s always been that way.
  • They point to any number of rules that were “always that way” and now aren’t.

Maybe the designers do now intend for models of a unit to be able to fight off in pairs because at least as long as they have a buddy backing them up they’re able to operate semi-independently? It would be scarcely “crazier” as an intended change than independent characters not being able to join units.

So, now what to do? For better or for worse this updated rule potentially changes the game quite a bit, reducing one of its differences from skirmish games. A configuration like this is completely against previous ideas of coherency so most players with even minimal experience are going to think it’s wrong. Having units all over the board will definitely slow games down. Worst of all, it will be extremely frustrating if someone tries to exploit what is probably an inadvertently granted ability to hide away a battery or ability-granting model while other elements of its unit operate elsewhere.

Casualties

Here’s another problem circling 8th edition coherency that doesn’t require anything but a very possible outcome in very traditional and straightforward play: What if a unit takes casualties such that it is no longer in coherency and cannot get back into coherency in a single move? This is not uncommon, for example, with any decent sized unit that loses models in the middle of a stretched out line, and there is no rule forbidding or preventing a player from allocating wounds in such a way.

Previous editions had a simple paragraph of text explaining that the unit had to try to move back toward coherency as best as possible at each opportunity to do so. Rules-as-written in the 8th edition text though, that unit is immobilized. If a unit “must be set up and finish any sort of move as a group with every model within 2″ horizontally and 6″ vertically of at least one other model from their unit” then it cannot make a move that ends with it out of coherency, plain and simple. There is no other provision to move given, so a unit that has its coherency broken and cannot restore it in a single move is thereafter stuck.

Units getting immobilized like this doesn’t seem like anything that would be reasonably intended. It’s very non-intuitive, frustrating gameplay, not explicitly described, a major change, and not a previewed one. Presumably most people will play as before and move toward coherency as best as possible. But then: Do you have to advance, or is it enough to just move? Previous editions explicitly noted that you had to run as well if you were out of coherency and could not restore it in a move, but there is no such note about advancing in 8th and it would not be absurd for someone to not assume such.

To that point about assumptions, what if you’ve never played before? How do you know what to do when coherency breaks? Being stuck clearly isn’t going to seem right but the straight rules text doesn’t let you move or provide other guidance, so now you’re putting your game on pause to deliberate on what should happen, potentially consult forums, and so on. A chunk of the time savings gained in speeding up the game just got burned up, and that’s for a very simple question with immediately likely answers.

In sum: Many people will simply say “Don’t be that guy, just play the obvious way and don’t exploit the rules.” But why shouldn’t I play to win within the given rules? And what if you’ve never played before? Who decides what’s obvious and fair? That obviously should be and largely can only be Games Workshop, but as they have so many times in the past, they’ve abdicated that role on these example questions.

Streamlined

Many people think of ambiguous and unclear rules as problems mostly for tournament players. But that’s entirely wrong. Despite the various communities with their own FAQs and such, tournament players are the most prepared to mitigate and obviate these kinds of issues. Playing with strangers and in a competitive settling quickly exposes rules misunderstandings and uncertainties, forcing their resolution. Tournaments also have the people, structure, and impetus to develop and disseminate FAQs as needed.

Casual players don’t have any of that. They’re on their own, encountering problems ad hoc and coming up with ad hoc solutions, and then potentially hitting entirely different solutions when they do go play other people, even casually. What happens to people at home playing 40k the first time unit coherency is broken and they have to figure out what to do next? Their game just stalled as they work it out. Worse, what about some young newcomer who builds a whole army strategy around breaking up their heavy weapons into mini-fireteams and then shows up at weeknight open gaming only to be told that’s not how the game works even though the rules don’t actually forbid it and they have no a priori way to know that? That’s going to be devastating.

In order to play games quickly and with strangers possessing their own set of assumptions and experiences, you need clear rules, regardless of how competitive or casual the match. Ambiguity is detrimental to the experience of all types of players.

I’m all for streamlining games. Being able to play games quickly is one huge positive. Clear and concise rules with an underlying elegance often also yield more strategic depth. But note in this area at least that nothing has been streamlined, the rules are just marginally shorter in text. The original coherency rules were two short, clear paragraphs that adequately captured a simple mechanic even as they could have perhaps been made even shorter and more clear. Instead, now there’s almost as much text as before, the game is no simpler, and a number of additional questions are generated even with only cursory investigation. Frustratingly, this isn’t even a space saving issue—there’s plenty of whitespace on that page immediately below the rule that could have been used to define coherency just as well as before or better.

Maybe I’m way off base and despite all indications the new coherency rules are indeed intended to permit splitting up units into pairs. But how to act when coherency is broken seems like an outright omission. It’s a straightforward one so probably it won’t be too much of a problem. But these are non-trivial, completely unnecessary problems that did not exist before and come up within the first minute of reading the new rules, literally in the third paragraph. How many other similar issues are there going to be in these “streamlined” rules? How many of them are exploitable to distort the game? Even setting aside Games Workshop’s track record on these kinds of issues, encountering such questions so quickly at minimum warrants some skepticism about what else will come up in the rest of the rules once read in depth and on the table.

Play

One of the risks in simplifying a game design, especially in revamping a large, complicated ruleset, is over-streamlining. Miniatures games are complicated. It’s often very difficult to spell out intended mechanics and behaviors in a short, simple way. There are many edge cases that need to be covered, and people come at rules with a broad spectrum of assumptions. Simply cutting text is not the same as clarifying and speeding up the game. Just a few more sentences here—carried over from previous editions, no less—would have averted non-trivial potential for confusion and abuse.

Despite the observations in this post I’m optimistic about this edition and excited about the enthusiasm around it. I think it quite likely to turn out really fun to play and a huge boon to 40k. But we should not be over optimistic that it is magically free of open issues or not already, even before release, in need of FAQs and erratas. There are multiple reasonable indications to the contrary and it would be completely appropriate to assume so of any essentially new ruleset for any game. Rebooted 40k also may not be intrinsically more suited than it has been in the past to either competitive or pick-up battles, as opposed to play in small, repeat groups that develop a shared consensus understanding of the rules.

The good news though is people have made all those viable in past editions. So, yes, we’ll probably still need to hammer out FAQs and complain about balance and construct missions to address various issues and so on. Eighth edition could and should be great, but just as with past versions I also think it’s going to take work. The real question then becomes: Is this a better basis from which to do that work? I think so, and I certainly hope so. We’ll start finding out tomorrow!

The Sword Sworn Campaign

Unfortunately, my friend Sascha is moving away. So we all decided to send him off proper by burning down a monastery of his beloved Swords of Dorn Space Marines!

Fourteen players came together Saturday for our Sword Sworn one-shot narrative campaign. Many heroes were made, villains created, and a ton of great games fought, with literally not a single unpainted model in play. This is a quick recap of the action. Many more photos are available via Flickr or Facebook.

In the grimdark of the far future, a new hero is born every minute… and eaten the next.

Backstory

Brother Mynaugh’s eyes swept the grounds from his perch in the east tower. Even with his superhuman vision he couldn’t see the group of his fellow initiates he knew would be assembling outside the chapel for night training beyond the walls. So soon now they would all deploy to the 10th company, full and true battle brothers of the Swords of Dorn.
Shattering his moment of reverie, the jaw of a servo skull in the tower’s cogitator bank suddenly sprung open and began emitting a piercing inhuman shriek. As Mynaugh looked on in the dim red lighting another and then another followed suit. The import came to the scout like lightning. He whirled around. Far on the horizon, faint lines streaking from orbit. This was no expected landing, no scheduled drop training. Mynaugh tugged his bolter off its wall bracket and pulled it close, not believing this to be any suprise drill either. Perhaps the initiates’ time had come early…

On the quiet planet of Hedron IX, the Swords of Dorn maintain one of their chapter’s training monasteries. This one specifically focuses on training Scouts in the art of piloting Landspeeder Storms to swoop onto objectives in turn five. The monastery has unexpectedly come under attack by the Blood Fed, a wretched mob of traitors, xenos, and galactic refuse come treacherously from their hiding holes to avenge imagined slights and punish the ostensibly vainglorious Swords of Dorn. Opposing them, in their moment of need the Swords of Dorn have called the many valiant allies with which they have shared mutual oaths over the decades to defend both honor and body to join them under the banner of the Sword Sworn alliance.

Icons for the Sword Sworn and Blood Fed alliances.

Map

Our campaign begins with the invaders amassed at the monastery walls. The campaign is played over seven major regions of the chapter monastery:

  • The Siege Front where the Blood Fed are encamped;
  • The Primaris Gate, Cawe Tower, and Saleron Tower keeping them at bay;
  • The Dormitorium where the monastery’s residents live;
  • The Munitorum where the Landspeeder Storms and other equipment are kept;
  • The Chapel of Mons where initiates pray and train in the combat arenas.

The Blood Fed start in control of the Siege Front and are working toward the chapel: Even if the Sword Sworn successfully rebuff them in the larger battle for the monastery, the Blood Fed’s leader and his personal army advances forward each turn.

There are three separate measures of success for the campaign—

  • Tactical: Taking/preserving the monastery (controlling a majority of the regions);
  • Strategic: Wrecking/preserving the Swords of Dorns’ recruit pipeline (higher total campaign points earned, a combination of victory points and campaign rewards);
  • Campaign: Looting/preserving the chapel relics (controlling the chapel).

Training monastery of the Swords of Dorn on Hedron IX.

Missions

A specific mission is associated with each map region, with the alliances alternating choosing regions to attack each round and thus the missions for each match to use—

  • Siege Front: A kill points style mission;
  • Towers and Gate: A breakthrough mission in which players place objectives whose worth is determined by how far they are from the player’s table edge;
  • Dormitorium: Both sides work to capture or rescue the many non-combatants enabling a Space Marine chapter’s operations, represented by Civilian NPCs.
  • Munitorium: Both sides work to destroy or extract equipment, represented by objectives that may be scored a finite number of times;
  • Chapel: An open battle with players vying for their choice of a combination of specific objective markers or kill points.

All of these are well tested and tournament-ready, based on our standard scheme of 20 victory points: 9 for primary objectives, 6 for secondaries, 5 for tertiaries. Each mission has a short list of secondary objectives from which players choose individually. This enables players to make strategic choices and play to their strengths, e.g., doubling down on killing versus objective grabbing or vice versa.

Mission writeup for the Munitorum.

Special Characters

There are multiple special characters at large in the campaign, including the aforementioned leader of the Blood Fed. In addition to their in-game presence, each special character awards 10 campaign points each round to the alliances for either their survival or death (interpreted as being forced to retreat) as appropriate.

The only characters known to both teams initially are the Scout Initiates Mynaugh and Te’Janus. Having been caught in the initial fighting, they are now swept away in the battle. Completely overwhelmed and seriously questioning signing up to be Space Marines, sheer luck just barely lets them survive, carried from one awful circumstance to another. This is represented by the Initiates being randomly assigned to a match each round, in which they are placed somewhat randomly between the two forces and huddle down until saved by the Sword Sworn or overrun by the terrifying invaders.

All of the special characters and tokens.

Tokens

In addition, there are three types of tokens given out at various points—

  • Blood Favor: The very first unit across the event to claim First Blood each round gets a Blood Favor which it may discard to ignore D3 wounds/damage.
  • Blessing: The lowest scoring players on each side each round get a Blessing from their gods or the Emperor, which they may discard to reroll any single die.
  • Relic: Each alliance choose one final round match in the chapel to be for the relic they consider most important, earning or losing an extra 10 campaign points by holding the central objective or not. The token may be revealed to make all runs, flat outs, and charges +D3 inches that player turn. Players may choose objectives in this mission, so the opponent may not necessarily care about the central objective unless this revelation is made.

All of the tokens may be used at any point, and carry into the next game if not used.

Campaign

Appropriately enough, the Blood Fed wound up comprised of primarily Chaos Marines, a few Space Marine contingents apparently having just thrown in their lot against the Emperor, and a band of Tyranids come for the feast. Facing off against them, the Swords of Dorn were backed by a full host of Space Marine loyalists, Tempestus Scions, and an Emperor’s Fist Armoured Company.

As kind of a going-away party we wanted everybody to get a chance to play with multiple people. So we played rotating doubles, with the alliances choosing which of their players to team up each round. After some quick strategy discussion about first round teams and missions, the campaign was on!

Traitor Governor Friedman launches the surprise night attack.

Round 1

Scout Initiates Mynaugh and Te’Janus find themselves amid the heaviest fighting, defending the Primaris Gate. Caught without any support, they’re exposed to a massive charge by a ravening horde of Tyranid monsters. Mynaugh lays into the horde with his minigun, but both barely escape the Red Terror.

The Blood Fed’s leader is revealed by his thrust against the Primaris Gate as the Planetary Governor Friedman, unsurprisingly turned traitor. More is at hand though then just a minor rebellion as Governor Friedman is clearly being rewarded for his actions, growing in power and size as the blood flows.

Outside the gates, the Sword Sworn gamble on a counter-offensive, attacking into the Siege Front. They are eventually rebuffed, but at the worst moment the Warp-fired visage of Brother Edelkraut, a storied hero of the Swords of Dorn presumed long dead, appears and empties his wrath into the invaders.

Outcome: No change in regions, but the Governor breaks through the Primaris Gate.

The map after Round 1.

Chaos Daemons overwhelm Swords of Dorn Scouts while Crimson Fists rush to their aid.

Presumed long dead Brother Edelkraut appears from the Warp to support a Lamenters Chaplain in his moment of need.

Scout Initiates Te’Janus and Mynaugh stare down the oncoming horde.

Round 2

Having barely escaped being eaten, the Initiates Mynaugh and Te’Janus immediately stumble into an even worse horror: The soul corrupting might of Chaos! Still trying to escape the carnage around the Primaris Gate, they’re harried by Raptors and driven toward the maw of Nurgle’s mightiest minions.

His rage growing ever more powerful, Governor Friedman sweeps through the Dormitorium feeding civilians to his dark gods. The Swords’ desperation growing as the heretic works ever closer to the chapel, Brother Edelkraut lives up to his legend, moving so fast from fight to fight that he often seems to be in two places at once.

At the previously quiet Munitorum, the defense forces are overtaken by terror as they suddenly realize there is a silent stalker among them: The governor’s secret henchman Assassin Timday appears at the airfield and begins hunting down Tempestus Scions.

Outcome: The Blood Fed cleave a clear path from the Siege Front through the Primaris Gate and the Dormitorium to the very edge of the Chapel.

The map after Round 2.

Tempestus Scions hold their ground at the Munitorum airfield.

Chaos overwhelms the Munitorum’s refinery.

Assassin Timday hunts among the airfield.

Round 3

Now a lumbering hulk, Governor Friedman smashes through the chapel walls and makes his way to stake a claim on a chalice said to have been drunk from by Rogal Dorn himself. Despite dispatching ever more frenetic vengeance, Brother Edelkraut’s furious hauntings are not enough to stop this sacrilege. Meanwhile the twisted Assassin Timday lurks the outer edges of the chapel battle, continuing his persecution of the Tempestus Scions.

Blown by the winds of war from fight to fight, the Initiates Mynaugh and Te’Janus find themselves having gone full cycle, from the very first contact at the Primaris Gate, to the very last fighting at the Chapel of Mons. There they find themselves almost snared in the clutches of the Alpha Legion when an angry company of Lamenters Space Marines comes to their aid just in time. Rallying to their brave example, they join a squad of their brethren Scouts in a suicidal fight to hold the left flank and protect the Lamenters’ main position. At long last the Initiates Mynaugh and Te’Janus have truly learned what it means to be one of the Emperor’s finest.

Outcome: The Sword Sworn make a successful raid into the invader’s encampment as well as retaking the Primaris Gate, but do not stop the Blood Fed’s push to the Chapel of Mons and the precious relics inside.

The map after Round 3.

Snipers pick off targets from the rooftops of the refinery buildings.

Packs of Warp Talons and Nurgle bikers roam through the Dormitorium.

Ill-fated Brother Maximus, cursed with Black Rage in his Dreadnought armor tomb, surges forward to assault a Chaos Havoc squad.

Outcomes

The Sword Sworn maintain marginal control of their monastery on Hedron IX (Sword Sworn tactical victory). Their recruiting pipeline however is wrecked by the Blood Fed, who have indeed feasted on many of their trainees and destroyed much equipment and supporting personnel (Blood Fed strategic victory). Worst of all, the cursed Governor Friedman manages to loot the Chapel of Mons and makes off with the relics he came to steal for his masters (Blood Fed campaign victory)!

Like so many chapters before them, the Swords of Dorn will have to rebuild from this loss, no doubt to become even mightier warriors for the Emperor…

Newly trained Swords of Dorn stand their ground to the last in the chapel.

Awards

Full campaign and individual results are posted here (XLSX). As this was purely a casual narrative event, we awarded the following as small store credit prizes:

  • Best Generals: Top overall points in each alliance, encompassing victory points + sportsmanship + army appearance (a 5 point rubric for minimum standards);
  • Craftsperson: First and second place in player votes for best army appearance;
  • Lucky Warriors: Our two primary prizes were drawn from a raffle, each player having earned 2 tickets for a loss and 1 ticket for a win.

Jake C with his Tyranid and Brian M with his Ravenguard won the raffle prizes. Steel Thunder Mike and Sam L from the Berks PA Gaming Club took home Best General titles for the Sword Sworn and Blood Fed respectively. A relative newcomer to our Redcap’s community, Fernando V took second in the painting votes with his Crimson Fists while man of the hour Sascha and his Swords of Dorn once more won that ballot, donating his prize to our ongoing Shadow War campaign. Congratulations everybody!

A Crimson Fists Fire Raptor makes a last ditch strafing run in a futile attempt to hold the airfield.

Next Up!

I have a bunch of thoughts on different aspects of this campaign to tweak. But it seemed very successful at creating the feel of a larger story and throwing in lots of fun little bits without being overly complex or unbalancing. A PDF with all the missions, tokens, map, etc., is mostly prepared and will be posted once 8th edition is released and the necessary changes made.

As a bonus, I was blown away by all the amazing armies and models that came out to play. Many under-utilized models made an appearance, particularly among the Chaos Marines. Many more photos are available via Flickr or Facebook.

All in all, I had a great time, everybody else seemed to have a great time, and I hope it was a fitting community tribute to Sascha, who has been the heart of our 40k group the past few years. We’ll miss you, and we’re sorry we burned down your monastery!

For everybody else, if this is the kind of Warhammer 40,000 gaming you crave and you can get to Philadelphia or Washington DC, you should join us for our upcoming LibertyHammer weekend in June and the NOVA 40k Narrative over Labor Day!

    

Scout Initiates Mynaugh and Te’Janus fight on, having become true warriors of the Swords of Dorn.

Molokh Gambit Parts

I’ll be updating this post as I organize links to resources for all the components needed for The Molokh Gambit, an X-Wing campaign we debuted this weekend.

Nebulon Frigate

Senator’s Shuttle

Satellite

  • STL: tjkopena’s model (this is the model we actually used)
  • 3D Printed ($6): Mel Miniatures (x4)
  • Paper Token: Tokens included in the original X-Wing (red) core set and the Tantive IV expansion

Cargo Pods/Containers

DX-9 Stormtrooper Transport

Crawler