Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Power levels vs points - A Burning Eye View

Greetings all, things are settling down a little bit with the new job now, though I’m still unnervingly short of hobby time in the evenings due to needing to get up early (any chance that those scientists among you could crack on and get that Catalepsean Node invention please?) Next up on my list of topics to write about therefore is the comparison between choosing an army by the power level method, and using the more traditional points system.

Power Levels

The new system, introduced for 8th edition. A lot of, shall we say ‘veteran’ gamers took issue with the system when it was introduced, and I have to say that with over 20 years in the hobby I didn’t really feel that I needed a more simplified method of picking my list. Recently however I’ve watched a few games of the excellent Moarhammer, and they’ve taken the decision to focus on using the power level system for many of their games. I’ve also signed up to a Throne of Skulls event at Warhammer World in April, and the event pack requires lists to be built to 100 Power Level so I’ve had to dive in regardless.

Now, for those of you who are interested and aren’t aware, power levels are essentially constructed around the ‘mid level’ cost of a unit’s potential points costs, with the relative power levels being the relative difference in those points costs. This has a few implications for choosing lists based on power levels.

1. There is scope to manipulate the units you choose within a power level setting to maximise the impact your list can have because units with a wider potential points cost will have a higher power level rating - just as an example let’s have a look at space marine scouts vs tactical marines. Scouts rock in at 55pts for a minimal squad with no upgrades, whilst the tactical squad comes in at 65pts. Not much of a difference, so they’re roughly equivalent in a points based list. Looking at the power levels however, we see that scout squads come in at 6PL, whereas the tactical squad that costs more points is only 5PL. The reason behind this is that the scout squad has a higher potential cost than the tactical squad (it may sound crazy, but it’s true) and therefore the envelope for the points cost of the squad as a whole pushes the power level (based on the mid point of that cost) up. Choosing units with less scope for a variety of equipment loadouts therefore will have a positive effect in terms of limiting the power level cost of the unit - as we saw in the example above, a scout squad is 20% higher in power level than the tactical squad. Of course, that’s not to say that the unit that costs more isn’t a better tactical choice, even for the extra PL point I’d still say scouts perform more efficiently than tactical marines, but if two unit perform similar roles, then you have the option to manipulate your power level cost in your favour.

2. List building to a PL total becomes harder. Bear with me here, because I know “power levels make choosing a list easier” is the headline. And they do. But only within a certain set of circumstances. Having written lists to conform to a 100PL limit, what I immediately found was that I found it hard to use all my available PL resource! In a 2000pt list, each point is a tiny percentage of the total available to me (0.05%), whereas each PL in a 100PL list is (stunned silence at my astoundingly complicated maths please) 1%, so 20x more significant. Now in a marine list, I don’t think any units (except cenobyte servitors) come in under 3PL, so if my total list of stuff I really want to take comes to 98PL, I genuinely can’t fit any more choices into the list. Of course, that’s 2% of my total power level available that I’m not using. Converting that to a points based list (more maths!) that’s an equivalent of 40pts that I’m missing out on that I cannot use at all in my list. Find me a points list from the marine codex that’s 40 pts short of the potential available to them and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand the mechanics of list building! In order to make best use of the totals available to you therefore, you need to build your list to exactly the power level total you have available. And that means dropping some of your first choice units and changing them out for things you’d be less likely to want to take.

Looking at this as a worked example therefore, one of the lists I wrote for throne of skulls was based around the concept of the space marine battle company (look it up if you don’t know what I mean!). After much juggling, I got the list to this, using exactly 100PL.

Cataphractii Captain


2x 5-man tactical squads

1x 10-man tactical squad

1 dreadnought

1 5-man devastator squad

1 stormhawk interceptor

2 drop pods

2 razorbacks

Pedro Kantor

1 5-man assault squad with jump packs

1 5-man assault squad without jump packs

3 scout bikers

This contains several issues as a list to my way of thinking.

3 scout bikers fails to take advantage of the scope for 3 grenade launchers in each squad.
I’m forced to take an assault squad without jump packs and stick them in a drop pod or razorback.
I can’t take extra marines in the devastator squad to use as meatshields, and the same with the smaller tactical squads - even 1 extra man pushes the PL cost right up to the max.

Now yes, you can make the (valid) point that these are fine-grain issues, and precisely what the points based system is meant to account for, but my issue is less around power levels as a concept, and more around the fact that by choosing a power level list to an exact total (instead of say + or - 2PL) it actually makes efficient list building much harder, and forces you to tweak your list in odd and potentially unfluffy ways. Moarhammer seem to have grasped the concept much better, by agreeing to use lists built to roughly a power level total. In fairness though, that’s perfectly possible with points, you just need to agree a wiggle value with your opponent, say maybe 20pts just to allow you to get that piece of wargear in that makes sense.

Now, what actually happened with my list building? Well, some of my friends are going to the same tournament. One of them is taking Orks (yes, an index army so things are likely to change when they get their codex, but still) and his 100PL list came to 1971pts. My 100PL list comes to 2192pts (I’ll cover the actual list in a later post). I’ve got over 10% extra stuff in my list, which in a competition environment (yes, I realise ToS isn’t the most cut throat of events, but even so, it’s still a competition) means a huge difference in the effectiveness of our forces (actually it means that even outside of competition too, but I’m sure you get my meaning).

In conclusion in relation to power levels therefore, we can see the following main points.

1. Power levels allow for manipulation of units to maximise their effect for minimum cost
2. Power levels allow for a simpler list construction on the face of it, but make it harder to build an efficient, well-balanced force
3. The potential for equipment manipulation can significantly unbalance forces against one another.


So, let’s have a look at the ‘old fashioned’ method of list construction then, points values. Seen as the ‘fine grain’ method of list construction, the points system is designed to be the most balanced option of constructing your list, with individual points values assigned to each piece of equipment, giving precise values for the in game effectiveness of a unit.

With 8th edition, GW have taken the decision to split all the costs of equipment and models down into separate lists, not available on the datasheets for the units, essentially to allow them to adjust the specific values to keep them as balanced as possible without invalidating a whole codex, or having to amend unit datasheets. On the whole, I think this is working well, though it does tend to lead to the use of supplements more often again – many armies now have updated points values in chapter approved, and therefore that’s another publication you’re going to need to take with you to games night/events etc.

The other issue I see for separate points lists is a more minor one, but relates to the relative cost implications of equipment based on the unit platform they are taken in conjunction with. What I mean by that, is that is a lascannon in a tactical squad really the same effectiveness in cost terms as a lascannon in a devastator squad, or on a dreadnought or predator for example. All these lascannons cost the same in the book, but I’d wager that a lascannon on a predator is more effective and more likely to last than one in a devastator squad. Now the obvious point to make here is that the relative effectiveness of those weapons and the cost implications can be adjusted by amending the base cost of the unit that it’s equipped to, so whilst a lascannon might stay the same cost, the base cost of the predator combined with the lascannon reflects that unit’s effectiveness. And that works in isolation, but can it then be said to be truly balanced across all weapon options and units? A better example here would be a dreadnought – with the potential heavy weapons that can be equipped to the dreadnought frame, can the base cost of the dread ever really account for proper balance against other units that can take the same weapons? I’m unconvinced. In that regard, the only way I think to truly balance units would be to include multiple costs for equipment dependant on which units are taking them, and it’s not as if this is an approach GW has been shy to adopt elsewhere – thunder hammers and storm shields both have different costs depending on whether they’re carried by characters or not.

There’s also no doubt that writing points based lists can be time consuming. Most if not all of my points based lists come to within 5 points of my target total, and that’s no accident, I like to make sure I’ve got the best potential performance out of a list and that means maximising the resources you have available. There’s still juggling of precise loadouts and equipment that I mentioned in the power level assessment, but with points levels there’s always that feeling that you’re equipping for a specific goal, and therefore once you’ve got your basic equipment set out, juggling wargear is the icing on the cake. It’s a different feeling to me to the juggling you do for building a power level list.

So what does all that mean? Well, I’m one of those people that just loves writing a list and seeing what I can squeeze out of it, either in terms of performance or more often in terms of building a narrative and a fighting style into an army. What I really found though was that I didn’t particularly enjoy building a list using power levels. Yes, I’m really pleased with the final list I came up with as a result, and it’s not a list I would have written using points in all likelihood, but that’s a by-product of not really being able to do what I wanted to with a more ‘normal’ selection. By all means, use power levels for pick up games and other matches, but just be aware that the system lends itself more to a less stringent method for agreeing games, and you’ll have better, more narrative based games if you agree a ‘rough’ total to build your list to rather than a specific value.

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