Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Perception - it's big and stabby, you fight it!

Hi all, and welcome to Random Wednesdays, the first of my (hopefully) regular posts on random topics to do with the wargaming hobby.

Today’s topic is perception, or in other words, why some things are apparently scarier than they should be, yet others are completely underestimated.

There are several fundamental points underpinning this topic, which are (in no particular order):
How new you are to the hobby
Where you get your information from
How influenced you are by visuals
Your playstyle
Previous experience

I’ve been a wargamer in Warhammer 40,000 since second edition, approximately 20 years ago. Since that time, I’ve played under 5 different versions of the rules, several space marines codices, and seen a very long list of models brought into the range since the early days. Without a doubt, that has tinged my perception of the game and the models opposing me – mainly because the tweaks to the rules over the years blend together and I can’t remember whether something I’m convinced of was a rule in this edition or a previous one. As such, the chances are I’m more inclined to underestimate something that has more recently been buffed to be more dangerous, or vice versa than someone who’s new to the hobby and only used to dealing with the current version of the model. Let’s dredge a couple of more extreme examples out of memory, the first relates actually to yesterday’s tactical post regarding terminator armour. When I first started gaming, terminators took their saves on 2D6, and still only needed to get 2+ (now as it happens, all weapons modified that result based on their strength, but it made shooting at termies with lasguns as pointless and difficult as the fluff would have you believe.) Whilst I’m not in the position of thinking I should be taking terminator saves on 2D6, the lasting impression I have from those early games is that terminators are really tough to kill. As yesterday’s post proved, that’s not really the case anymore but my perception of how tough they are is coloured by those experiences. Second example then is the eldar guardian. Again when I first started, these guys only took shuriken catapults as an upgrade, they came with lasguns as standard. Eldar guardians were walking ablative wounds for the heavy weapon platforms they dragged around, and the shooting of the unit itself wasn’t scary at all. Consequently, facing an Eldar army these days I’d have to concentrate very carefully to avoid discounting the threat of those massed shuriken catapults to my power armoured warriors.

The second point that affects perception then is where you get your info from, are you a web trawler? Do you listen to ‘that guy’ at your local club/GW store, or do you buy all the codices yourself and pore over them to figure out the best/most scary combinations of units and weapons. Now I’d love to say I’m in the latter group, and given the choice that’s exactly where I’d want to be. Sadly, disposable income (and time) is nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be and that’s not an option, so I’m reliant on internet reviews and people at my club who actually have the codex. Just a word of warning here, never trust a single internet review, as it will likely be as skewed by perception as anything else – trawl around and read several reviews, and more importantly try to get info from someone who’s reviewed a codex you do have and check that you agree with their conclusions before you start reading about any codices you don’t have. They may not have done their research properly, or may just have a different take on the game to you (I disagree with a lot of what’s I’ve read about grav weaponry, but that’s my perspective and it’s influenced by how I play – see later). Remember, if the person you’re talking to has misunderstood a rule, or had a bad experience with a certain type of model, than that will influence what they tell you about that army.

Thirdly is visuals. What I mean by this is what you see on the tabletop. Tyranids are the classic, and have previously even had special rules to address it in games terms, called ‘shoot the big ones’. If I set up my army opposite you, and at one end of it sits a wraithknight/riptide/gargant etc, that inevitably draws your focus. You may not have the weaponry to deal with it, or you may be able to take it out with basic squads (DE are great at taking down monstrous creatures with basic troops units) but simply the fact that it’s there and drawing your attention alters your perception of what you’re facing. Concentrating fire on something like that is great, but you mustn’t lose sight of what else is happening on the table. The simple fact is that big models come across as more threatening than small ones, even if actually the main threat comes from those smaller units. Remember, 5 of the 6 missions are objective based, and those huge models are rarely able to claim objectives. Some people are more influenced by this than others, and a full education of the rules as considered in the previous point certainly helps an objective assessment, but ultimately some players are able to tune out the visual side of the game better than others. Interestingly, I find that painted miniatures have a similar effect – if your opponent has a partly painted army, then you notice the painted stuff more than the grey – in fact I’m pretty convinced that often why freshly painted models die quicker than unpainted ones, because your opponent subconsciously notices them more. Quite simply, camouflaged models can actually survive longer because your opponent doesn’t see them. Beware though, that works both ways, because if they’re that well camouflaged, you can forget they’re on the table too!

Your playstyle also influences your perception of models and their abilities, and here’s where I’d like to talk about grav weaponry. Forgive the digression but it’s also going to branch into a little rant on list tailoring. Some models are more threatening to certain types of unit than others – let’s use the grav gun as an example – it’s ideally suited to taking out monstrous creatures and terminators due to the unique way it rolls to wound, and it being AP2. Problem is, if your opponent backs out of those choices and goes a different route your weapon is pointless. Let’s take Chaos for example as the perfect antidote to Grav weaponry. You like em, you load up on bike squads with grav guns, and centurions with grav cannons, safe in the knowledge that your opponent is playing chaos, so there’ll be lots of power armour, terminators, obliterators and demon prince(s). There’s just one problem, your opponent likes hordes, so he’s taken cultists instead. I played a Chaos army the other day with only 1 model wearing power armour, 3 obliterators and 1 demon prince. Taking lots of grav weaponry against 40+ cultists would have been like trying to kill them by beating them over the head with candy floss. If your playstyle is to take a certain type of unit (my DE include no coven units) then the threat of the opposition will change based on how good they are at killing what you’ve taken. This is why I’m a great personal fan of taking a list to face all comers instead of concentrating weaponry and units that affect certain parts of the game at the expense of others. And I’m in no way bitter when someone takes two heldrakes against my marine infantry list. Ok maybe then. Just a little bit.

Speaking of heldrakes, my final point is how your previous experience influences your perception of something. There’s a guy at our club who has a heldrake in his Night Lords list. Don’t think it’s ever done significant damage, because it has a tendency to get intercepted and shot down the first turn it arrives. If my first Heldrake experience had been against him then I think I’d have laughed off all the internet wisdom about them being threatening, ‘just shoot em down, they die easily’ I’d have said, and cheerfully ignored the threat. Fortunately that wasn’t my first experience, which was when a single Heldrake tore the guts out of my Raven Guard infantry before a very lucky lascannon shot ripped it from the sky. As such I’ve been more wary of them since, but I’ve still been burned by them (see the aforementioned game against two of the buggers, where they almost single-handedly trashed my entire force, which was comfortably on top until then).

So what does all that mean then, exactly?
Well, quite frankly it’s just been something that I’ve been thinking about recently, and if it helps one person understand their opponent better then I’ll be a happy man. The bottom line though is that in order to become a better player, I think we could all benefit from listening to more people’s opinions on things, getting good quality first hand experience, either from a codex or playing games, and actually thinking about what impact the different elements of the opposition are capable of and how to counter them. Only when all that is put together do you get a complete picture of the enemy and how you’re going to beat them.

Thanks for reading, and until next time remember, Chuck Norris’ tears cure cancer, it’s just a shame he’s never cried.

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