Psychological Warfare: The Art of Manipulation in WH40K
In poker, it is said that one does not play his cards, but rather plays the man across from him. Though far removed from a game of poker, the same is no less true about your average game of Warhammer 40,000. Though the big three of tabletop success (Army Composition, Deployment, Game Tactics) are still crucial to winning with regularity, being able to manipulate your opponents behavior using simple psychology is no less potent. Though true veteran players will oftentimes see through the tricks and ploys I am about to present below, most players will be susceptible to them to varying degrees and, in many cases, one will find that clever psychological play can change what would otherwise be a crippling defeat into a surprise victory.
It's Not Underhanded, It's Just Clever
Before I go any further, let's get one thing out of the way: I am not condoning cheating in any way, shape, or form. Bending the rules to your advantage displays a lack of character and a failure to appreciate the worth of the game itself. Such players are the WAAC (Win At All Costs) types, who will argue with you on the finer points of the rules just to swing the scales just slightly in their favor and, at the same time, destroy all the fun for anyone. I do not like playing these folks, and neither (I imagine) do most of you. Don't do this.
What I am suggesting has almost nothing to do with the rules at all. It has everything to do with how your opponent views you as a player. Just like in poker, you need to play your cards close to the vest, and only reveal to others what you want them to know about your plans. In short, you are trying to trick your opponent into making tactical errors, not duping them by shady rules-lawyering.
Trick #1: The Unexpected
When facing an opponent across the table, you will quickly get a sense of what parts of his army intend to do what during the game. That squad of Devastators on the second story of that building? They are probably going to sit there and shoot. The crowd of Orks lining up along the edge of a deployment zone? They are probably going to rush straight ahead. One can presume, likewise, that your opponent is making the same assumptions about you. In both of your heads, one can imagine a pair of little television screens across which is playing the various turns of the battle as you both expect them to unfold.
Okay, it is now your job to destroy those assumptions. Move units in unorthodox directions. Deepstrike units in unexpected places. Assault with the Tau; shoot with the Orks; retreat with the Necrons. Actions like this, when done with confidence (see below) will immediately set your opponent off guard. He will be forced to ask himself 'Why the hell is he doing that?' and, if you are lucky, it will cause him just enough confusion to encourage him into a mistake.
The best way to get this to work is by finding those units that can perform particular niche roles that most other players don't consider. Our esteemed editor, Noah, does this on a regular basis with his wonderful little Sentinels. When you say 'Sentinel' to somebody, you immediately think 'fragile heavy weapons platform'. When Noah throws down his lascannon toting sentinels in cover on the first turn, you have no reason to suspect he is using them otherwise. That is when, without warning, he charges them into your S3 infantry units. This is an unorthodox use for a Sentinelâ€”they are considered 'ill-suited' to assault, and more effective shooting at stuffâ€”but S3 infantry can't hurt AV10, and it is an excellent way to occupy or possibly even run down weaker units. Sentinels aside, many army lists have this sort of units that, while conventionally thought to be for 'x', can easily be used effectively as 'y'. Doing this in the appropriate places and appropriate times will frequently catch your enemies off guard and result in the disruption of their plans.
As a final note about this little trick, take care not to make suicidal moves for the sake of 'surprise.' It is good if you can get your opponent to worry about what those lone, unoccupied rhinos are doing over on their left flank, it is bad if they just shrug and say 'well, that makes it easy!' And blow your units into the next world.
Trick #2: You are the Master Strategist
One thing that can quickly unnerve less experienced opponents is complete confidence in your moves. If you behave as though everything is going according to plan, your opponent is more likely to change his own well-laid plans in favor of something you think he doesn't expect. This, again, disrupts his plans and can, if you're lucky, cause him to make crucial mistakes.
To get this to work, repeat this mantra in your head: "You know exactly what is going on." Your opponent just blew up your Land Raider and entangled your CC Terminators? Perfectâ€”just as you expected! You just lost a whole squad of Chosen to an improbably Tau assault? Their deaths are acceptable to you. Whatever happens, act with confidence and a steady hand. If your opponent feels as though he just struck you a deadly blow and you shrug it off as 'acceptable,' your opponent is likely to get nervous. They will ask themselves "but what IS he planning, then?"
Another aspect of this is speed. When it is your turn to move, move confidently and quickly without pausing to hem and haw about this movement or that movement. When shooting, already have the list of units to fire at what and in what order. Act as though everything you have to do is already scripted well in advance, and your opponent (who himself is probably hemming and hawing a fair amount) will get nervous. They will feel like they aren't controlling the game (even if they have the edge), and, again, are more likely to make mistakes.
Now, of course, you won't always know exactly what you want to do in any given turn, but the point is to not let this show. Need some time to think? Consult your rulebook for some obscure point or other and, while doing so, spend the time thinking about your next actions (without really caring about the ruleâ€”its just a show to hide your indecision). Above all, never say 'umm' or 'uhhhh' or ask you opponent 'now, what does (unit x) do again?' The first step to playing the part of master strategist is to know the rules of the game cold. Also, start planning your turn while your opponent's turn is still going on. This way, when it comes time for you to move, you are all set to go.
Trick #3: Well, That Unit's Done... (giggle)...
Coupled closely with the confidence thing is some creative misdirection. If your enemy whittles a unit down below scoring, or seems completely unthreatened by some unit you have somewhere, take advantage of this. Let your opponent continue to think of this unit as 'worthless' or 'lame.' At the same time, remember this: any unit with a gun is a threat to something. That lone guardsman with a lasgun can, maybe, kill one more model in a unit just barely scoring. That unit of Space Marine Scouts reduced to a sergeant and a sniper rifle can still knock off a carnifex on a lucky roll. Now, granted these are long shots, but they are still shots. You know that, I know that; now, don't let your opponent know that.
Accordingly, whenever you are moving lamed units around, always throw up a shrug and say 'whatever.' Move them seemingly at random. Always save them for last in any phase, as though they are only an afterthought. Even go so far as to request that your opponent do away with them. Say "hey, would you mind putting my worthless Rhino out of its misery?" Share a laugh with your opponent about how pointless it is to even do anything with that worthless hunk of plastic. Then, when the time is right, tank shock his expensive HQ right off the board, assault his wounded heavy weapon squad in the last turn, or do other things that, if the dice roll your way, could prove to be a major coup for your side. Not only is this a risk worth taking in most cases, it can also lead to some of the best moments in 40K. Nobody loves it more when a lone Firewarrior clubs down an Autarch on a freak chance, or when that ratling sniper shoots down the raider full of wyches at the perfect moment.
Trick #4: The Kroot Effect
This trick involves a little bit of a story. I used to play a friend of mine who played Space Marines (he has since given up playing me at all, which can show you the downside of effective psychological warfare), and, in the first couple of games I played, I used Kroot with improbable success. They ran down more Space Marine Scouts than I care to relate, survived more punishment than two tactical squads could dish out in a game, and even once killed a Terminator Librarian in assault with only a pair of casualties. My friend came to hate the Kroot with a passion unrivaled. In response, even as I phased out Kroot usage in many of my other army lists, I made a point to take a sizeable unit every single time I played him. The result? I could utilize his fear and hatred of the Kroot regularly to my advantage. If I put them on his flank, I knew he would attack them. If I placed them in front of him, I knew they would suck most of the firepower on the first turn. Despite their relative cheapness, they were always the top of his target priorities.
How does this relate to you? Well, most folks have units that perform improbably well against particular opponents. This can be due to a number of factors, but the reasons why are almost irrelevant. The point is that, if you can identify what your opponent considers his 'nemesis' unit, make a point to use it against him whenever you play each other. This unit is literally a foothold in your opponent's brain, and can be manipulated to cause them to make all kinds of mistakes. Even if your nemesis unit dies (and it usually will), if you deploy and move it well, it can earn more than its points back in causing your opponent to expose parts of his line foolishly, or even to simply distract their shooting for a turn or two so the rest of your army can act in peace.
Trick #5: Your Army is Scary!
Sometimes, all you need to do to get an opponent out of the game is to have a really impressive first turn or even deployment. If you can demonstrate the 'superiority' of your army early on, you can frequently get enemies to concede a few turns in (not the best result, but hey... ) or even just stop trying very hard to win. Though any army can do this, the ones most suited to it are the really big or the really durable.
Horde armies have an advantage in that your opponent is forced to ask 'I'm supposed to kill all that?' If they are outnumbered 3 or 4 to one, they might just write the game off as a loss even before dice hit the table. Furthermore, anytime you can pick up a pile of dice that takes two hands to roll (or two hands rolling twice), you can watch your opponent's self-confidence shrink. Even forces that still have a good chance against your horde might find discretion to be the better part of valor, and will concede the second the game begins to go poorly.
By the same token, if you can manage to take the brunt of your enemies firepower and lose almost nothing as a result, you are well on your way to winning the game. Armies like the Necrons and the 3rd Ed Ksons were exceptionally good at taking a monumental quantity of firepower and not losing a damned thing. Do that enough, and your opponents might just throw up their hands and say 'I just can't kill the damn things!' This leaves you in an enviable psychological position, and gives you the edge in winning the game.
Well, there are innumerable different ways psychology can be used around the game table, and the above are only just a few tactics that spring to mind. The important thing to remember is that this can work to your advantage even if the statistics say you are a goner. Always think positive, be confident, and play to your best, and you might find your opponents falling into mistakes that can swing the game in your favor.
As a final note, remember the importance of sportsmanship. Nobody likes to play a jerk, and the above tricks are no excuse to gloat or act like a butt-head. Always be polite, friendly, and sporting and nobody will fault you if you trick them into making a bad move. That is, after all, all part of the game.