Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Better Playtesting: Pay Attention!

Let's be honest with ourselves for a bit.  How often do you finish your turn and then zone out during your opponent's turn.  You pay a small amount of attention to his moves, but only insofar as it applies to what you won't have to shoot with next turn.  The rest of your attention is focused on the games around you in the hall, or thinking of the food break after the game, or maybe you're just focused on what you're going to do next turn.

I know personally I have often ignored my opponent's turn and I spend it planning out my next turn of moves.  Planning your next turn is good right?  Wrong!  So what should you be doing?  Watching your opponent and his moves like a hawk.

Don't Zone Out, you're missing half the game.

Your opponent is giving you a ton of information about his plans, strategy, and psychology every turn.  If you choose to ignore that, you're passing up valuable information to your own detriment.  Until your opponent's assault phase you shouldn't be thinking at all about your next turn.  While your opponent plays, phase by phase, you should ask yourself questions constantly.  The following are some, but by no means all, of the questions you should be considering.

Movement Phase

1.  What order does your opponent move his miniatures in?  Does he go left to right?  Right to left?  Does he always move a 'favorite' unit first?

Start establishing his patterns early.  If he goes left to right for the first 3 turns, and then on turn 4 he breaks that pattern, clearly he is anxious about something to do with that unit.  You should be able to figure out what he is planning and how do deal with it from the context of the game.  Also, if you notice that he has a favorite unit, you that he seems to dote over, it may be worth it to push it up a notch or two on your target priority.  Killing someone's pet unit can do more to hurt their psychology and put them off balance.  I think we have all seem a player mentally take themselves out of a game when their centerpiece unit dies before it can do anything, and that kind of psychological blow shouldn't be passed up if it's offered to you.

2.  Why is he moving where he is moving?  Why isn't he moving where he isn't moving?

These questions should reveal a lot about your opponent's strategy for the game.  We have to assume our opponent is competent, and that he has a good reason for moving where and how he is moving.  So it is very useful to know why he is moving how and where he is moving.  This information can tell you, on turn one, your opponent's entire plan for the game.  It can tell you what objectives he will contest, which ones he is going to ignore, and even how he envisions the late game going.  Knowing which objectives of yours that your opponent isn't going to bother fighting over will allow you to commit the bare minimum resources to defend it so that you can throw more firepower at the objectives that will be fought over.

Shooting Phase

1.   Why is he shooting at the things he is shooting at?  What is his target priority.

It should be relatively simple to determine which units of yours your opponent considers a big threat.  In fact, after turn one, you should be able to make a mental list of your opponent's target priority for your army.  Knowing this list will allow you to make significantly better decisions about how and where to move your own units. 

It also allows you to set traps and force your opponent to make crucial errors.  Let's say it's obvious that your Land Raider Crusader is #1 on your opponent's 'must kill' list.  You could send it out towards a far flank, away from the objective you actually want to fight over.  This will pull your opponent's resources away from the objective you intend to attack with the rest of your army.  Your opponent could easily become over extended and unable to concentrate firepower, thus allowing you to destroy key units piecemeal.  Coincidentally, the easiest way to avoid a trap like this is to be aware of question #2 of the movement phase.  So in summation, knowing your opponent's priority list allows you to exploit that to your own advantage by making him maneuver into bad position.

2.  Why did he run with that unit rather than shoot?

Sometimes the answer to this question is crystal clear.  Sometimes it isn't.  The times it isn't at all obvious are the times you need to study it the most.  Chances are if someone runs a unit rather than shoot with it, and you can't figure out why, it's because they are setting themselves up for something on their next turn.  Being able to deduce that during his shooting phase on his turn, rather than finding out about it on his next turn's shooting phase is crucial.  You have a whole turn of your own to counter his plan, but first you have to know what his plan is.

Assault Phase

The assault phase is simple.  You should have a clear idea after the movement phase what the assaults are going to be, and you should already know your opponent's target priority after the shooting phase.  The assault phase is the culmination of those things.  Thus, the assault phase is when you start planning your next turn.  There isn't much nuance to the assault phase as it relates to the strategy for the game as a whole, and consequently, I don't think there is a ton of information about your opponent's plans to be learned from it that you shouldn't already know.

The Other Side of the Coin

Your opponent sent you a ton of free information on his turn, don't send him any on your turn!

Movement phase.

1.  What message does my movement send to my opponent?

This is good to know.  Strong technical play would be moving units in the same order every turn.  Control the flow of information you're sending to your opponent by playing consistently.  Don't appear to favor a unit.  Don't change the order you move your units... unless you are intentionally trying to send misinformation.  Sending misinformation is a valuable skill that will enable you to bluff more easily, such as the Land Raider distraction stratagem from above.

Shooting phase

1.  What does my shooting phase tell my opponent about my target priority?

Generally, we shoot at the most important unit first, because if the first unit fails to blow it up, we still have more shooting available to throw at it.  All well and good.  But that does send the clear message that the targetted unit is the top of your priority list.  My advice would be to figure out which units won't be shooting at it at all, even if everything else fails.  You won't be firing your Dakka Pred at his Land Raider, even if all your melta units fail to hit.  So go ahead and fire the Dakka Predator first in the shooting phase.  It will send your opponent misinformation about what units you fear the move, and could lead him to making poor decisions as a result of that misinformation.  You want your opponent to make bad decisions based on the quality (or lack thereof) of the information you sent.

This isn't the Land Raider you should be shooting at.
The Bluff

Jedi Mind Tricks are very easy to pull off, and oddly enough, almost no one uses them in 40k.  In competitive Magic, Mind Tricks happen every game.  The order you cast your spells to pull out enemy counters before you deliver your real threat is standard operating procedure.  Taking the trick to the second level is pretending to be very excited about the card you just drew and playing it immediately.  If you pretend to be excited about this non-threat, your opponent (who doesn't know the contents of your hand) may be inclined to waste a counter magic on it when he shouldn't just because he incorrectly values the threat of the card.  Simply put, you misinform him of the value of the card through a display of emotion, and he makes an otherwise poor play because of that misinformation.  

This is directly applicable to 40k.  You can use a feigned display of emotion to no-so-subtly tell your opponent which of his units you fear and which you don't; which of your units you care about, and which you don't.  Done properly, you can have an opponent commit a series of costly errors, and leave him scratching his head at the end of the game wondering what happened.  My guess is a lot of people in the Warhammer community wouldn't consider this good sportsmanship, but psychologically gaming your opponent is a key strategy in poker, or any other competitive strategy game all the way to Chess.  Don't leave a valuable tool off the table.


  1. I forgot to ask: Can I put the "Better" series on the Beginner's Project page?