The purpose of this article is to describe the means by which a player can make decisions in the middle of the game without relying on a plan or context-specific "tactics." While plans and tactics can help guide players towards the moves which will most help them win, no advice and no plan will cover even a significant portion of the situations which may arise during a game. It is the ability to make decisions on the fly which separates skillful players from unskilled players, and it is this ability above all others--above any plan or any piece of advice--which will most help you win games.
What does it mean to play skillfully?
One might think that it’s easy to define a skillful player. Surely,
if a player wins a lot of games (significantly more than he loses,
say) that player must be skillful, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t so
simple. We can see this by considering three things:
1 – Counting wins doesn’t account for the random elements of the game.
A player with less skill can beat a player with more skill by getting
lucky. The amount of luck necessary certainly goes up as the
difference in the two players’ skill increases, but the fact remains
that luck has the potential to swing a game almost without regard to
matchup. After all, if I roll nothing but sixes and you roll nothing
but ones, it would require stupendously bad play on my part to allow
you even a draw.
2 – Counting wins doesn’t account for the quality of one’s opponents.
If a player plays exclusively against better players or worse players,
his win/loss record isn’t really indicative of his skill. He could
still be unskilled, just playing against even less skilled opponents.
He could be very skilled, just playing against even more skilled
opponents. Even limiting the count to games played in “competitive”
environments doesn’t count. Tournaments aren’t solely the province of
3 – Counting wins doesn’t account for differences in army
construction. Some armies are better than others. A skilled player
playing against another skilled player might lose consistently simply
because he plays a worse army than the other player. You might be
inclined to say that part of a player’s skill is his ability to build
a good army. I would agree, but would stipulate that I’m not really
talking about that part of being skilled in this article. Skill in
army-building is different than skill in playing. Writing an article
entitled “How to build Warhammer 40,000 armies skillfully” might be a
worthwhile endeavor, but that article is not this one.
Given these considerations, you might be wondering just how I plan to
write an article about playing skillfully if I can’t define skill as
the ability to win consistently. To this end, I propose a different
A skillful player, then, is one who plays skillfully, and
To play skillfully is to consistently make decisions which are
conducive to winning.
By utilizing this definition, we can call a player skillful if he
makes good decisions, even if those decisions are thwarted by fickle
dice, skillful play on the part of the opponent, or even the
superiority of the opposing army.
How do you make decisions which are conducive to winning?
If playing skillfully is consistently making decisions which are
conducive to winning, the next step is to determine how to make those
decisions, and it is here that the meat of this article lies.
To begin, I have one simple and important rule. It is from this rule
which all of my other suggestions will stem, and from this premise
that they will be supported.
1. Before deciding on any in-game course of action, a player should
gather as much information as he can, but should consider neither
information which is irrelevant nor information which comes from an
I hold this rule to be self-evident, and I won’t go into much depth in
an attempt to explain it further. Instead, I will instead list five
rules which come as a consequence of this first rule. These rules
aren’t comprehensive—they don’t fully define or describe the means by
which one can make decisions which are conducive to winning. They
are, however, the rules which I think are the most important and most
2 - Before deciding on a course of action, consider each of the following:
- The capabilities of every unit in the game. This includes their
attributes, equipment, wargear, and special rules.
- The position of each unit on the board relative to each other unit,
each piece of terrain, and each objective. If a unit is in reserve,
consider where it could end up if it were to enter the table.
This information is both relevant and comes from reliable sources: the
rules, the codices, and your own observation of the board. As such,
it should be considered.
3 – Before deciding on a particular course of action for a
particular unit, consider all of the consequences of that course of
action and each alternate course of action.
To do this, you should be relying exclusively on the information you
gained by following rule two. The goal isn’t to anticipate particular
consequences, but to catalogue all of the possible consequences of a
particular course of action.
Note that I’m talking about the consequences of both your actions and
your opponent’s actions. If refraining from moving your unit allows
it to shoot at an enemy unit, but leaves it within the charge range of
a second enemy unit, both the results of the shots at the first unit
and the results of being charged by the second unit are possible
consequences of the course of action which is refraining from moving.
4 – Before deciding on a particular course of action for a
particular unit, assign a value to each potential consequence of each
of that unit’s possible courses of action.
To do this, you should be relying on the catalogue of possible
consequences assembled by following rule three, as well as a sound
knowledge of probability and statistics. Essentially, you should look
at each possible consequence for each possible action, determine how
much that consequence hurts or helps your ability to win, and weight
that value by the probability that of that particular consequence
occurring, should it be pursued. Then, you can determine an aggregate
value for each possible course of action, and compare those values to
the values of other possible courses of action.
There are two important things to note:
First, this exact advice only gives you a value for consequences in
the immediate game turn (your turn and your opponent’s next turn).
Usually, these consequences are the most important, and they should be
the ones on which you focus. However, it is a good idea to routinely
extrapolate the process a few turns ahead. Consider, for each
potential course of action, the courses of action that might be
available to that same unit in the next turn, and the courses of
action that might be available to that same unit the turn after that.
This extrapolation tends to create a multi-tiered possibility tree,
which can become unmanageably large if it goes more than a turn or so
out. In general, it is only a good idea to extrapolate several turns
down the road if there is some task or objective of such overwhelming
priority that it is possible to trim off branches which don’t lead
towards the completion of that objective, and refrain from
extrapolating those branches at all. Essentially, you want to look
for branches which lead to irrelevant results and prune those without
pursuing them, or for branches which are separated only by irrelevant
distinctions, and merge those together.
Second, you should not be trying to guess at what your opponent will
do. The reason for this is simple: any guess you make about what your
opponent will do is inherently unreliable. Thus, taking it into
consideration is in violation of the first rule. Consider: if you
guess at what your opponent will do and take steps to counter those
courses of action of your opponent’s, you opponent is free on his next
turn to simply do something else. In fact, if you do effectively
counter one of your opponent’s potential courses of action, his
analysis of his options on his next turn will almost certainly
convince him not to take the course of action you acted to counter.
Why? Because by acting to counter it, you’ve made it a worse course
You should act to counter some of your opponent’s potential courses of
action. You should do this, though, not because you think you know
what your opponent is going to do, but because you want to dissuade
him from taking that particular course of action. You can dissuade
him by choosing courses of action for your units which leave that
particular course of action a poor choice, but even if you think
you’ve identified a course of action to which your opponent has
committed himself, you should never count on him sticking to that
course after you’ve effectively acted to counter it. This leads into
my next rule, which is:
5 – Don’t commit to any course of action before it is time to
actually take that course of action.
If you commit to a course of action ahead of time, you’re effectively
making a decision without first gathering all the information you can.
If you decide this turn what your unit will be doing next turn, you
will have made that decision without knowing what your opponent will
do in the turn between. If you wait until next turn to make that
decision, you will be able to first gather the information about what
your opponent did in that intervening turn. Plans which encourage you
to commit to specific actions ahead of time encourage you to violate
the first rule by making decisions without first gathering as much
6 - When deciding on a course of action, don’t engage in mind-games.
This rule is very simple, very important, and it applies to a wide
range of activities which are common among gamers. Following this
rule comes down to two things:
First, never decide on a particular course of action because you think
it might confuse, disorient, intimidate, or otherwise upset your
opponent. The workings of the brain, the endocrine system, and all of
the other bodily bits which affect the mental state of the average
human is extremely complex. Professional psychologists acknowledge
that the results of psychological manipulation are often unreliable
and can vary significantly from person to person. If you are not a
professional psychologist, your ability to psychologically manipulate
your opponent will certainly be unreliable and, as such, should not be
considered when making decisions.
Second, ignore what your opponent has to say about his army, your
army, or the game in general. It seems a common practice for players
to “play up” or “play down” their units or use commentary about the
course of the game to influence other players’ decisions. Unless you
are absolutely convinced that your opponent is genuinely trying to be
helpful, you should consider your opponent to be an unreliable source
of information and you should therefore refrain from considering any
information you get from your opponent when making your decisions.
I’m not necessarily saying that you can’t attempt to manipulate your
opponent psychologically. Just remember that your in-game decisions
are not a good vehicle for that sort of manipulation, and that, if
your opponent follows my advice, nothing else you do or say will
affect his in-game decisions!
Summary and Conclusion
This article is, by intent, brief and uncomprehensive. Its purpose is to lay out some simple rules which, if they are followed, will help you make better decisions during the course of your games. These are rules which are universally applicable: no matter what situation you face, applying these rules will ensure that the decisions you make are made well, and result in courses of action which are conducive to victory. They will keep you from making basic mistakes, or taking courses of action for reasons which do not correspond well to the goal of achieving victory.
But, they are not all that can be said on the matter. The mechanics of evaluating possible courses of action are often complex and demanding, the task of extrapolating these evaluations several turns out even more so. Were I to have attempted to describe that process in detail, this article would have been interminable. If there is sufficient interest, I may consider writing more articles on the same subject which expand some of the rules I've discussed in this one, but, for now, I suggest that you consider these suggestions at face value and try putting them into practice. Though it may take some effort to become skilled at on-the-fly decision-making, there is no other skill which will help you more in your games.