Applying the Nine Principles of War to Fifth Edition Warhammer 40,000.
The idea of applying actual ‘real-world’ military lessons and maxims to 40K isn’t new. We’ve seen everything from folks referring to Sun Tzu’s tenets to people developing tactics for ‘Fire’ or ‘Water’ armies to folks trying to adapt actual armor tactics to their IG builds. We routinely speak of ‘refusing the flank’, ‘double envelopment’ or ‘pincer maneuvers’, and even overlapping fields of fire and defense in depth. One of the problems with this is that 40K is not an in-depth simulation of war and it isn’t meant to be. 40K is an abstraction. At the end of the day, it is still a game dominated by dice rolls where anything can happen. 40K’s primary purpose, as the ‘most important rule’ reminds us, is to be fun. However, just because Warhammer 40,000 is an abstraction doesn’t mean that thinking about the game strategically is a useless endeavor.
Over the next few weeks, these articles should serve to guide the community through a strategic thought exercise with 40K as its focus. Not just thinking about the tactics of a particular unit or within a specific situation, but rather looking at the entire game in a strategic light. This should be beneficial to veterans as well as newcomers to the game. To start it, we need a common language to speak from. This series of articles will aim to give us that common vocabulary while sharing some thoughts on applying the Nine Principles of War to the Fifth Edition of Warhammer 40,000.
What exactly are principles of war? Well, that’s a little hard to pin down and folks have been trying since Sun Tzu if not earlier. I can tell you what they are not. They are not some kind of checklist that if you tick off each one you’re guaranteed success. Warfare does not work that way and neither does 40K. Your every decision could be tactically and strategically sound, then you roll a handful of 1′s, and there goes the game.
We could view principles of war as general truths or fundamentals inherent to the nature of war. But the definition I’m going to favor for these articles is that they are a guide, a method of classification that gives us a paradigm to speak from that can sometimes be violated but should always be considered. Remember, for every rule there is an exception (especially in 40K). These Principles are broad and overarching high-level maxims, and strategic in nature rather than tactical, but certainly can and should be applied at the tactical level.
Now that we’ve tenuously defined principles of war, we’re left with which ones we want to use. Just about every military thinker who has put pen to paper has his or her own spin on what constitutes the principles of war. For our purposes, we’re going to go with the ones based on those introduced by Major General J.F.C. Fuller and as defined by the U.S. Army. The Principles are not absolute. They are not the end-all-be-all of military thought. They do have the advantage of being small in number and easy to remember. There are nine of them. Listed in no particular order of importance, they are Mass, Objective, Simplicity, Security, Maneuver, Offensive, Unity of Command, Surprise, and Economy of Force. A nice simple way of remembering them is to use the acronyms M.O.S.S. M.O.U.S.E. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore each one in detail with a general definition and then my opinion (feel free to disagree) as to how it might relate to 40K. Some of the subjects we’re going to discuss may seem at odds with one another. That’s not a mistake. Every one of these principles is subject to the vagaries of the situation and therefore, depending on the circumstance, may not have equal weight concerning their application.
(Definitions of the Principles of War from U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5 Operations, pg. 2-4 through 2-6. June 1993)
Mass: Mass the effects of overwhelming combat power at the decisive place and time.
“The enemy side always looks stronger, especially when they are firing at you from both sides”
Murphy’s Laws of Combat
This Principle has three primary meanings concerning Warhammer 40,000. The first is just what the definition says. The Germans even have a word for it, schwerpunkt, which loosely translates to ‘center of gravity’ or ‘focal point’. If it looks like your opponent has an overall strategic advantage seek to develop a tactical advantage at a localized decisive point. A localized key victory at the schwerpunkt can have vast repercussions across the entire tabletop, allowing you to stop an opponent’s advance or roll up the opponent’s flank. Overly simplified, we can sum up the concept of Mass as, ‘Send your hardest stuff at your opponent’s weakest stuff.’ However, that really doesn’t do it justice and it really isn’t as simple as running down Dire Avengers with your Landraider. The schwerpunkt is fluid, certainly from game to game, and might even be from turn to turn! You must look at the terrain, the mission, your opponent’s forces, and reserves then if you feel the conditions are right, by all means, feed those Eldar a Landraider! Simply put, the Principle of Mass, in conjunction with the other principles, permits numerically inferior forces to achieve decisive combat superiority even in a war game dependent on dice.
The second meaning of Mass as it relates to 40K is tied to the word itself. It’s not hard to kill one Ork, but it is hard to kill two-hundred Orks. This is the Principle of War for horde armies. A horde army spread across the entire tabletop or held in reserve can be manageable and handled piecemeal. A horde army concentrating on one table quarter can be a real problem for most armies.
The third meaning of Mass relates directly to firepower. You don’t need to mass your forces in order to mass your firepower. A unit of Terminators can reliably shrug off one unit’s worth of lasgun shots. How about four units? How about eight? The more dice you force your opponent to roll, the more chances he has to fail. Many hard-as-nails units in the game aren’t as much of a threat in greatly reduced numbers. If you focus all your firepower at a given unit they tend to go away.
The bottom line: Even if numerically outnumbered, you can create a localized situation where your advantages outweigh your opponent’s.
And that’s a nice segue to our next Principle of War. Next week, we’ll talk about Objective. But in the meantime, when can you think you have applied the Principle of Mass in your games?