Thursday, July 17, 2014

Armchair Developer: Helping Out Man-O-War

Every Warmachine release cycle is an intoxicating experience. From the moment a new book is announced the world comes to life with all the possibilities. Every model you feel needs an improvement could finally see salvation; every problem you have may finally have a counter; a beloved warcaster may get a powerful new tool. Its very difficult to not get caught up in at least a little bit of hopeful excitement.

However, with that bliss comes some inevitable level of crushing disappointment. No matter how good a release cycle is, it's never going to be quite as good as you had dreamed it could be. Or, even worse: something you dreamed of actually became real, but it's rules suck or it's model is ugly as sin.

The best release cycles offset that disappointment with general quality. As a Khador player, the Vengeance release cycle contained almost nothing I had been hoping for (an Iron Fang solo was the only item on my list,) but the overall quality of the models is more than high enough (for me, that's "usable and fun" up to "amazing") that I almost don't care that none of my dream additions came through.

I said "almost." Every release cycle, the same dream goes unfulfilled.

Like most Khador players, I've been waiting a long time for something, anything to come along and give Man-o-War (MoW) units a boost so that they're a more compelling list option. I'm not even a diehard fan of MoW; I only own one of each unit, and I was so disappointed by the Bombardiers that I never bothered to paint them. In contrast: I painted a full unit of Assault Kommandos along with it's 3 UAs, and a damn Field Gun.

Lie Bot, what is the saddest thing?
My reason for wanting some boost for MoW units is because it's a chunk of my collection and model selection that is all but dead space in my case. Like a lot of other Khador players, I think they look awesome, and I'd love for them to be more effective in a competitive environment. And, most frustratingly, two of those units are very close to that point; they just need a little nudge in effectiveness, and they'd be there.

Every release cycle this topic comes up, and every release cycle this same stream of thoughts runs through my mind. In an effort to exorcise those demons, I'm sharing my take on what would get MoW units into rotation. If any PP model devs magically stumble up on this, it's probably too late for Reckoning, but feel free to steal any of these ideas and implement them.

Please, please steal these ideas and implement them.

General MoW Unit Issues
Before we can begin to treat the illness, we must understand the nature of the disease. MoW as a unit type have a few fundamental issues that hold them back, and it's important that any proposed solution take these issues into account. These aren't things that necessarily need to be fixed (point of fact, some cannot) but if you lose sight of these issues, you can end up with "fixes" that are net neutral (or worse.)

Key problems that MoW units face include:

- Speed: MoW are slow models, plodding along at SPD 4 base. This isn't a death knell in and of itself, but it is a big problem in a game like Warmachine that often comes down to speed and maneuverability. This also heightens another issue, namely,

 - Durability: MoW are a multi-wound unit, which most players associate with being durable. However, MoW are often some of the easiest models in a list to eliminate. Why? The issue is twofold:

1) Low SPD means that, outside of very narrow circumstances, MoW will have to take it on the chin. Though two of the units have Reach, MoW are out-threatened in melee a discouraging amount of the time.

2) Low DEF and insufficient/inconsistent ARM. MoW have a mighty DEF 11, which means that few attacks are going to miss them, even if you manage to stack a DEF buff on them. MoW thus rely more on their ARM and wounds to carry them to the fight.

Shocktroopers can be pretty tough to take down while they're in Shield Wall, and Demo Corps and Bombardiers are armored enough that low POW damage isn't going to take them off the table quickly. However, if Shocktroopers lose the benefit of Shield Wall (pull effects, denying orders, unit charges,) and ARM 16 on the other MoW units isn't enough to save them from concentrated shooting (or, heaven forbid, a dedicated melee model charge.)

 - Cost: MoW units are 6/9 (I'll get to the other cost in a minute.) While that cost is on par with several other muti-wound units, those units often have a factor that makes them worth their investment. MoW are relatively expensive - 1.8 points per model - but they don't have the bells and whistles to justify that cost, nor do they often do enough work to validate that cost.

And, The Unit That Shall Not Be Named is blessed with an absolutely absurd cost relative to their rules: 7/11 for a 3/5 unit. Bombardiers aren't even that bad of a unit in terms of rules - they're aggressively mediocre, if not boring - but their price is way, way above what is sane for their abilities.

Anything one tries to do to make MoW more competitively appealing needs to keep all of the above factors in mind, and address what it can in a way relative to the unit. With that said, lets get to specifics.

MoW Shocktroopers
This is a unit that almost every Khador player ends up with, if not based on looks and first impressions, then from the 2-player starter box and it's cruel, cruel joke on starting Khador players.
Many players most favorite least favorite unit.
Shocktroopers are the MoW unit probably least in need of help right now (though that's a dubious distinction.) The Iron Fang Kovnik did this unit a solid by giving them a much needed boost while they maintain Shield Wall (a 50% speed increase for these poor guys!) They are also the unit most likely to benefit from the Mechanik Officer's Granted ability that allows for MoW models to be Repaired, and it combos with their natural role as a living wall.

However, the IFK feels like it was a splash bonus (it's chiefly a buff to IFP, with it being nice that it helps the Shocktroopers,) and the Mechanik Officer is nice but clumsy to use; Irusk2 is the only list I'll consistently use that combo with because Martial Discipline makes the positioning so, so much easier. None of these have the direct buff effect that a UA usually brings, and it's what MoW units need the most in order to be competitively interesting (outside of niche applications.)

As with most maligned units, I feel like a solid UA could get Shocktroopers into lists more frequently. I think there are a few things that a Shocktrooper UA would need to have to meet that criteria:

 - Cost: 2. Shocktroopers, like all MoW units, are on the expensive side, so any UA you add to them needs to take that into account. I feel that there are two possible solutions: either account for the relative expense of the unit and make the UA 2 points with solid abilities, or price the UA at 3 points but give it outstanding abilities. I prefer the former as I think that's easier to balance/get the right "feel" for.

 - Some kind of movement buff. I've always felt that Shocktroopers are a solid candidate for Reform - it helps keep them moving up the table at a decent clip in Shield Wall, and it allows them to potentially make decent use of their guns.

 - Some way to generate more attacks. One of the biggest issues that Shocktroopers have with their cost is that their low volume of attacks really cuts into their ability to deal with other infantry. In my experience they can actually take a charge fairly well (especially considering that they haven't changed since the original printing of Warmachine: Prime 10 years ago,) but they quickly get bogged down.

The solution I like best for this problem is that the UA gives the unit Cleave. It keeps number of attacks the same on the unit (so things don't get crazy when you factor in Fury, Battle Lust, feats, etc,) but it allows them to more effectively deal with infantry.

Put all of that together and what I'd like to see in a Shocktrooper UA is something like this:

  • PC: 2
  • Stats: Standard "officer" improvements
  • Abilities: Tactics: Reform, Granted: Cleave (switch Tactics and Granted, or make both Tactics; whatever works)

That seems reasonable to me, but I'm biased, so I'd leave it to a more nuanced/neutral eye to polish it up.

MoW Demo Corps
This unit will always have a special place in my heart thanks to Mk. 1. Their rules are almost unchanged since then - the only thing that has technically changed is Backswing and that was via a global errata - but the one thing that did change for them was their relative price.

Going off of very rough memory: Demo Corps used to be 56 points for the base 3 model unit, then 16 points per model added up to 5 [Mk. 1 refresher: games were either 500 points or 750 points, and units started at a minimum then could be purchased model-by-model up to a maximum.] So a full unit of Demo Corps would cost you around 88 points. To put that into perspective: a full unit of IFP cost 95 points, and a Juggernaut cost 105. Demo Corps used to be dirt cheap to put on the table, and when combined with their offensive output it made them a great "shock" infantry choice.

The Mk. 2 transition bumped up their cost significantly, and much to the detriment of the unit. While their previous costing was too low, their current costing makes it very difficult to get a good ROI on the unit without significant assistance (and even then they run into lots of problems.)

Demo Corps share two of the same issues as Shocktroopers - speed and cost - but have an entirely different third issue: durability. Demo Corps are relatively easy to pick apart at range, and they're easy to kill with almost any charging melee infantry (weaponmasters just lick their lips and wait.) If you can get the Demo Corps to make attacks they usually don't disappoint, but getting them to that point is an ordeal.

Similar to the Shocktroopers, here are some ideas as to what a decent Demo Corps UA would look like:

 - Cost: 2. Again, similar to Shocktroopers the Demo Corps have a fundamental pricing issue that a UA would need account for. Also again, I think leaning towards "cheap but great" is better. The idea with MoW UAs should be to make the unit more palatable, and keeping the overall cost reasonable has to be part of that.

 - Some kind of speed buff. Melee infantry can't kill what they can't charge, and a 9" threat range is pretty mopey for an expensive, specialist unit. Lots of options here, but my favorite is giving the unit the No Quarter once-per-game ability, as it solves two of their problems at once (low speed and lack of Pathfinder.) Plus a bunch of robot men charging you with ice hammers would probably be scary.

 - Some kind of durability buff. This one is tricky. Demo Corps are most vulnerable on the approach, where their ARM 16 is susceptible to just about any ranged attack. It's possible to buff them against that, but I'm not sure it's really the right answer; I'm okay with the unit being vulnerable to ranged so long as they're dangerous when they get there (they are) and they can actually reasonably get there (right now they cannot.)

I'd rather go another angle: make them more durable when they get into melee. If they can last a little longer in melee, you can get more value out of the Demo Corps and they feel like a better investment. Unyielding seems very appropriate, and Gatormen Posse have proven that it's an excellent way to make an ARM 16 multi-wound unit decently durable in melee.

Put all of that together and what I'd like to see in a Demo Corps UA is something like this:

  • PC: 2
  • Stats: Standard "officer" improvements
  • Abilities: Tactics: Unyielding, No Quarter
I'm not sure that's enough, but I think it's a good start. I'd really love to get Demo Corps back on the table - their melee output is kind of wonderful if you ever get to make attacks with them - so I'll take anything at this point.

MoW Bombardiers
I'll be honest, I'm not sure what you can do to help these guys.
Great, now I'm sad again
One of the most egregious issues that the Bombardiers have is that they are ludicrously over costed. They are, in my opinion, a victim of early Mk. 2 design (and/or being part of the initial rush to get all the new Mk. 2 materials out.) Their rules are very bare bones, and aspects of their kit - in this case their ranged attack capabilities - are over evaluated. 

5 POW 14, AOE 3 guns with Arcing Fire certainly sounds powerful, but it's less so with RNG 10, even less so on RAT 5 models, and it is nowhere near good enough to justify their 7/11 price tag. Cavalry models barely justify that in most cases, and at least they bring to the table decently accurate, hard hitting melee attacks with good threat ranges.

I have a very difficult time thinking up a model that I'd be willing to add to this unit (thus increasing it's cost) that would ultimately be worth it. This is absolutely a case where you need to overcompensate with a UA's abilities and undercut it's cost; even a 1 point UA would need to be very good to get this unit on the table, it'd need to be amazing at 2 points, and it'd need to be flat out nuts at 3 points.

The biggest area where the Bombardiers need help is in making their ranged attacks more worthwhile. I'm fine with their durability being mediocre, because it's actually pretty good for a ranged unit. Likewise with their melee output; crappy in general but not bad for guys with grenade launchers. Some things that could help:

 - Better range. Either straight up Snipe on their shots, or something akin to Steam Pressure on the Mule. The former is preferred, but any range increase would help these guys out.

 - Better damage. At 2.2 points per model, their damage output doesn't really cut it (at ranged or in melee.) Possible solutions include Brutal Damage against a target they hit (potent, but offset by low RNG and RAT 5,) or some way to get boosted blast damage rolls (more powerful, but less reasonable.)

 - Some side benefit to the shots. Incindiarii are a fantastic example of being able to make a medium based shooting unit worth bringing, so fire on hit would be tremendously appreciated. Failing that, I'd take a Stormfall Archer shot and cause fire to models hit by the template on direct hit.

Fire is a good catch-all, but anything that allows the Bombardiers' shots to have more flexibility/effect would be a big boon. Some form of Stationary is often suggested (ice rounds, natch,) but I'm loathe to recommend adding more Stationary effects to the game due to how potent that effect can be. 

Any of the above improvements would help, and in a perfect world I'd love to see the unit pick up some form of variable ammunition that allowed them to choose between different effects (a la ATGM or Stormfall Archers.) Bombardiers are a very expensive unit and one of the things that makes them nigh impossible to work into a list is how limited their abilities are; adding flexibility to what they can handle/do turn by turn would be a big help.


So there you have it; one man's rantings on how to make MoW units better. Since this topic seems to come up every release cycle and I always revisit it, hopefully this will either ward me against falling into thinking about it again (unlikely) or mystically cause some MoW buffing model(s) to manifest this release cycle (also probably unlikely.)

I do want to caveat all of the above: I don't think MoW units are uselessly bad. I have one list where I like Shocktroopers a good bit (Irusk2), I have some lists that use Demo Corps, and I've read accounts of people using Bombardiers without covering the table in disappointment vomit.

However, all of these units are very finicky, and in most cases a sub-optimal choice compared to something else. Which is why you see their inclusion drop off significantly as players refine their lists and attempt to meet higher levels of play. That is the part I'd like to see changed. I don't want MoW in every list (that's the pendulum swinging back too far the other way,) but I'd love to see them more consistently, and I'd equally love to put them on the table without feeling like I'm playing with a weight around my neck.

Hopefully Warmachine: Reckoning brings us something. The Mechanik UA and the Iron Fang Kovnik were both helpful additions (at least related to using Shocktroopers,) but MoW need more direct assistance before they start hitting the table again. If not this time around, there's always next year.

As always, thanks for reading!


  1. I like your take on this issue. The idea of unyielding for DemoCorps actually sounds very likely, it makes the unit better and does not really help with their weakness. Steam Pressure for Bombs is another legit idea. My personal preference would be: Shocktroopers - Defensive Strike. I'll take Cleave hands down, but D-Strike appears more likely to me AND reinforces their defensive idea.

  2. Defensive Strike would be very potent across that unit. Maybe a little too potent; my initial reaction is that would make them very good against most infantry units, since they could kill one charger apiece, then mop up the rest of the unit the following turn. And if they tried to charge in again, more attacks come their way. I think that might be a little too effective at keeping single wound infantry at bay.

    Another similar idea would be something like Retaliatory Strike (see: Skinwalker UA.) Same principle (you come at me, I attack you,) but I think that might be a little more balanced in that the attacking model still gets to resolve their attack. That feels a little more reasonable across a whole unit, and I think it'd still give Shocktroopers that same "wall of blades" feel.

    Alternatively, they could get something like Defensive Strike as a mini-feat. Though again, I'm not sure if that's good enough.

    And here we can see one possible reason why no specific MoW updates have shown up in any of the recent release cycles: trying to come up with a good solution without breaking balance is very tricky. :)

  3. Right, Retaliatory Strike. I completed forgot about that one. That's even more likely. I don't see Defensive Strike as strictly better than Cleave with the once per turn restriction on Defensive Strike, but Retaliatory Strike is even more conditional (and semi-skornergetic: It works better if MoW are in Shieldwall. Who melees MoW in Shieldwall if he's unlikely to kill them?!), so the probability of getting that is even higher.

  4. Yeah, that's the crappy part about defensive abilities: your opponent is largely in charge of if/when they trigger.

    The upside to something like Retaliatory Strike is that it would at least make your opponent reconsider when to commit to the Shocktroopers and how much to send at them. That may either give you a change to thin them out more before they commit (go Shield Cannons! :P ) or punish them from going all-in.

    The whole "defensive abilities are tricky" thing is what pushed me towards something like Cleave. It's more fun for the owner of the model (yay, more attacks) and it's less of a frustration/drag/"gotcha!" for anyone playing against it.

    Of course, it's all academic. I think we'll get a Shocktrooper UA right around the same time we get a Skarlock-like solo. :)

  5. I just had a light-bulbish moment when thinking about Bombardiers and a Mechanical Meat Mountain...

    ...what if they got Close Fire? The ability that says friendlies will not be affected by their blast damage. Somehow, this seemed plausible to me...

    1. I'd still need something bigger and better out of the Bombardiers. They have a lot of ground to make up, in my opinion, between their cost and abilities. The best answer I've come up with involves an eraser and a magic marker. :)

      Close Fire is a great idea for them, or Khador in general really. Khador has always been a faction loaded to the gills with blast damage (it used to be one of the faction's defining traits) and being able to leverage it in another way could be fun, if nothing else.